Catalonia Leaps into the Dark

Catalonia Leaps into the Dark

Independence supporters form a “human castle” in Reus, Catalonia, October 7 (Joan Grífols / Flickr)

Last Friday the Catalan regional Parliament, known as the Generalitat, proclaimed an independent Catalan Republic. On Saturday the Spanish state, which the Catalans call simply “L’Estat,” moved in to crush it. Invoking a hitherto unused provision of the Spanish Constitution, the right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy (with the full support of the “opposition” Socialists) sacked the Catalan government and dissolved the Generalitat. Rajoy announced snap elections for a new, presumably more tractable parliament on December 21. The Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont is being replaced by the Spanish vice-president, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, renowned for her virulent hostility to the Catalanist movement. And this morning, Spain’s attorney general announced charges of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds for the ousted Catalan leadership—charges that could carry prison sentences of decades if Puigdemont and his cabinet members are convicted.

To readers of the mainstream press, the behavior of Puigdemont and the Generalitat must seem suicidal. (The Spanish press considers it criminal as well as suicidal.) The Spanish state has the letter of the law (or more precisely, of the Constitution) on its side, as well as an overwhelming preponderance of physical force. The Catalans’ greatest disappointment so far has been the lack of support, or even sympathy, from the Western democracies, and especially from the European Union.

Catalan hopes for international solidarity were always delusional: the European Union, like the United States, has been hostile to secessionism ever since the Soviet Union was successfully dismembered. Rajoy, moreover, had enthusiastically carried out the austerity program mandated by the European Commission, bailing out crooked banks and slashing social services with exemplary zeal. The EU was never going to censure such a prize pupil.

The future of a Catalan Republic, at least in the short and probably the medium term, does not, therefore, look very bright. But Puigdemont never had much room for maneuver. He was under intense pressure from his own coalition, not to mention the crowds in the streets, to let the declaration go forward. More than two million Catalans had voted for independence in a referendum on October 1. The legitimacy of the referendum was dubious, since less than half of the electorate cast votes, but the vast majority of them voted to proclaim a Catalan Republic, despite violent harassment by the Spanish police.

The name of the ruling coalition, Junts pel Si, means “United for Yes,” and the coalition’s platform included a commitment to implement the referendum’s results. President Puigdemont at first tried to temporize, by proclaiming the Republic but suspending its realization, while vainly attempting to negotiate with Rajoy. His disappointed supporters had already begun to compare him, for his pains, to Judas Iscariot. Had he continued to stall he would probably have been overthrown.

Conventional opinion holds that Catalonia is headed for disaster. Certainly there is plenty of anxiety among the Catalans themselves, of all political persuasions. The general public mood is jubilant, however, particularly in the provinces, where most people are indigenous Catalans. Distinctive Catalan folk-ceremonies, like the construction of “human castles” and performances of the Sardana, the traditional Catalan circle dance, have been transformed into patriotic celebrations. In Barcelona massive street demonstrations demand the release of imprisoned Catalanist leaders. A separatist trade union federation has called for a ten-day general strike.

Everywhere crowds wave the senyera, the Catalan flag, and sing the rousing national anthem “Els Segadors” (“The Reapers”). The song predicts that the oppressors—unspecified, but understood to mean the armies of the Spanish king—will be mown down like a field of wheat. Meanwhile, Carles Puigdemont, denounced a few days ago as a traitor for seeking a compromise with Rajoy, is now being hailed as a national hero for permitting the parliamentary vote for the Republic.

Junts pel Si’s mandate for independence, however, is highly questionable. There is no way to accurately determine why 57 percent of eligible voters abstained: was it simply fear, or was it a boycott? How many would have voted “No” in a legal, peaceful referendum? Earlier polls have suggested that about half the population (and three-fourths of native-born Catalonians) favor independence, while perhaps a third (including many recent immigrants) oppose it. Most of the rest would prefer a third option involving greater autonomy. Dissatisfaction, therefore, is widespread. But would a mere plurality in favor of independence justify an action as radical as secession?

On the other hand, how else can Catalanists deal with a state that has, in their view, been deaf to their complaints, and is determined to erode Catalan liberties? How else to convince L’Estat that a new national compact is necessary? Many Catalans who are opposed in principle to secession have been driven to endorse the Republic out of sheer exasperation with Madrid.

At the moment the situation is too volatile to assess with any confidence. Moods and opinions are probably changing by the hour, and repression by the Spanish state may either intimidate or mobilize the population. I see three possible outcomes on December 21. They are, in no particular order:

First: a re-run of the 2015 elections with the Junts pel Si coalition retaining its parliamentary majority;

Second: the victory of a unionist coalition including the Catalan Socialist Party and the Citizens Party (Ciudadanos), made possible by the abstention or legal exclusion of Junts pel Si;

Third (and much the most hopeful for the democratic left): the triumph of a popular front demanding amnesty for any imprisoned Catalanists. Such a coalition would unite the independentists with the anti-separatist radicals of Podemos, the Commons (En Comú coalition, led by Barcelona’s leftist mayor Ada Colau), and the various social movements known as “Tides” (En Marea). It would do so by tabling, for now, the vexed issue of secession. This coalition would resemble the left-of-center Popular Front that came to power in 1936, which was also unified by the demand for amnesty. If this “amnesty alliance” should prevail, Ada Colau might well become president of the Generalitat, which could reanimate the entire Spanish left. If that happens, it will be time for democratic leftists to break out the Freixenetimage.


William Hunt founded, in 1989, the St. Lawrence Solidarity Project to support democratic culture in postcommunist Europe. He has traveled frequently to Bosnia, working with independent media, civic NGOs and educational institutions. He is currently writing a book on George Orwell’s experience of the Spanish Civil War. His longer essay on the history of the Catalan independence movement appeared on October 10.

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