Tag Archives: Politics

Independence or death

[Personal note: in an email, a friend mentioned that he was surprised that I hadn’t written more about the current situation in Catalonia. I’ll admit that I too am slightly bemused by this. I can only say that the decline in the blog as a format (not just mine, but in general), which started years and years ago but has now more or less reached its culmination, has coincided more recently with personal events – our daughter is three months old now. So I’ve gone from being one of the few English language bloggers to discuss Catalan independence as an actual possibility worth discussing, to being one of the only political bloggers not to have talked about recent events. In this post, I will try to rectify that.]

How many turning points has this independence movement had? They’re uncountable, I suppose. It began with the Estatut. Or with Arenys de Munt. Or maybe in 1977 when they let Tarradellas back. The 9N ‘consulta’ which definitely wouldn’t happen, then didn’t happen, and if it did it had no consequences. The CUP forcing Mas out and paving the way for a truly committed pro-independence president of Catalonia. Year after year of peaceful mass demonstrations, the biggest series of protests in European history. Intervention in the Generalitat’s finances. The imposition of 16,000 police. A por ellos.

October 1st – #CatalanReferendum

Like many others, I was guarding the local polling station before 6 am. How many times, living in a democracy, do you get to say that? Some of my neighbours had been there all night. The mood was one of tense hope and anticipation. We heard rumours that the Policia Nacional and Guardia Civil were leaving their cruise ships in the port of Barcelona. Would they be coming for us?

Two Mossos arrived and greeted us with a cheerful "Bon dia". "Bon dia!" they received in cheerful response. Could they go in and have a look around? The ballot boxes hadn't yet arrived, so they were allowed in for a minute or so. After they left the school, they took up post a short distance from the school gates, watching.

Then a murmur of activity. The ballot boxes! With the two Mossos stationed outside the front gate, the school's back door was used to smuggle the ballot boxes in. We helped shield one of the guys who brought them as he left through the front entrance with a spare box for another polling station in his hands. A huge round of applause and cheering broke out. The Mossos stayed back.

At 11 am, I went home to make lunch for my family and saw horrendous scenes on the news. We started to receive messages from friends and loved ones, asking if we were OK. One of the schools attacked by the police was in Sabadell, a neighbouring town. In the end, they didn't come for us. After lunch, I was back at the polling station until it closed. My neighbours marched on the town hall and the mayor lowered the Spanish flag.

The police brutality on October 1st was, I think, one of a series of critical errors on the part of the Spanish government. But I think I can understand why it happened. A state can sometimes calculate that it's better to have everyone talking about what it succeeded at (breaking heads and fingers), rather than what it failed at.

Intelligence failures

October 1st was, unquestionably, a day of failures for Spain's security and intelligence services. Most significantly, the Spanish state had previously identified the ballot boxes as its primary target, and yet it failed to capture a single box before it started its raids on the polling stations. What this means is that hundreds of people were involved in a clandestine operation to bring the ballot boxes from storage in Elne, France, to each of the hundreds of polling stations across Catalan territory, and that the Spanish intelligence and security services almost certainly failed to infiltrate this operation. The operation was carefully planned, involved failsafes, need to know data restrictions and even lookouts watching border crossings and major highways.

It's probably fair to say that this intelligence failure indicates a generalised failure by the Spanish authorities to successfully infiltrate the Catalan independence movement's core, and those of us who support independence should take some pride in that. There is an outside chance that the operation was infiltrated but that a strategic decision was taken to avoid revealing this fact for some future gain, and so the ballot boxes were left alone. I find it very difficult indeed to accept this hypothesis given that the politically expedient thing would have been to prevent the ballot boxes arriving altogether.

Similarly, the Spanish government seemed to have no prior knowledge of the online Universal Census system set up in the days before the referendum, and designed to allow people to vote in alternative polling stations if theirs was closed by police action.

The king's speech

One of the founding myths of the Spanish transition is how the current king's father Juan Carlos saved the fledgling democracy by speaking out against 1981's Guardia Civil/Army coup attempt. I don't think many people expected his son to be able to repeat this mythical feat, in the age of the internet, but few predicted that he would do so badly. Felipe's speech had two main ingredients: an attempt to placate his critics on the right, and carte blanche for the PP government to push forward with draconian measures under the protection of the constitution. He failed to speak to Catalans' (or other Spaniards') concerns for the state's lurch to repressive tactics. The king's speech signaled the failure of the transition and its pact for autonomy for Spain's regions and nationalities.

Article 155

Much has been written about the dreaded Article 155 and the powers it might concede to a government that attempts to use it. The thing about Article 155, though, is that it's a bit like the atomic bomb. Even using it once is a highly risky operation which will have far-reaching and unknowable consequences. Much of the hot air surrounding the PP's intentions with Article 155 is just that: hot air. The Spanish government knows that actually applying any of the measures they have floated in the press would be next to impossible. It's a tactic to try to force elections, and insofar as it has convinced committed 3rd-wayers like Santi Vila, it has worked.

But make no mistake: if Catalonia fails to become independent, the constitution will be abused by the PP-PSOE-Ciudadanos coalition in order to make Catalonia pay. Albert Rivera has already called on the central government only to call Catalan parliamentary elections (a power he doesn't have, but will claim under 155) "when they can guarantee the result", i.e. when they can be sure that pro-independence parties won't win again, which they certainly would. The education system, which works very well and categorically does not indoctrinate Catalan children beyond trying to give them the same sense of civic responsibility kids all around Spain are brought up with, will be destroyed. The same goes for TV3 and Catalunya Radio, well-loved and well-balanced broadcasters. This is what awaits Catalonia if 155 is applied. And the PP has already threatened Castilla La Mancha, the Basque Country and Navarra with similar treatment.

Republic (or elections)

No one knows exactly what will happen this evening and tomorrow morning in the Catalan parliament. The assumption is that sometime tomorrow morning, the parliament will vote to approve the lifting of the suspension of the declaration of independence, and that this will be followed by the proclamation of the Catalan Republic. After that, who knows? Elections to form a constituent assembly with the job of drafting the Catalan Constitution are likely, but will they be immediate?

And will there be any international recognition? Israel? Slovenia? The USA? Kurdistan? Kosovo? I've always had the feeling that Spain's true level of international support is weaker than it appears in the media. Its main strength is that it is a state. Catalonia is not. And until it controls its territory, infrastructure and finances, it won't be. The Catalan Republic might be born on Friday October 27th, but the story won't end there. That said, we've come this far. To pull back now would be far more disastrous.

*Update: And this shows why I don't like to make predictions. Now, it looks like elections are to be held on December 20th.

*Update 2: I spoke to soon. Here's my thread covering the events of the day:

Catalonia: the Moral Imperative Spain Can't Answer

The latest trend in El País/the internet/Twitter is to publish innumerable articles 'debunking' the 'myths' of the independence referendum campaign in Catalonia. And every time one of these is published, there's a temptation to try to debunk the debunking. Answer it with more facts.

The truth is that these articles are a distraction. It doesn't matter whether Catalonia has ever been an independent state. It probably was in 1641 but who cares? It's a red herring. This is a moral question and opponents of the referendum have made no effort to engage with the moral question because they have no arguments.

What's really important is that it is right and fair that Catalans can vote to decide their political future. None of the opposition arguments, with their revisionism and legalese, their focus on process and judicial decisions, their twisted interpretation of the meaning of democracy, engages with the moral imperative at the heart of this question.

The difference between Spain and Catalonia: a project

It seems to me that the great hope of the Spanish center is now the mutually assured destruction pact that a PP-PSOE coalition would represent. Actually, this is almost certainly the great hope of the PP which wouldn't stand to lose quite as much as the PSOE (whose slogan in the last election was "Let's kick out Rajoy!"). But therein lies a clue to the potential pact: like the CUP in September's Catalan elections, the PSOE hasn't said no to any PP candidate for president. It has said no to Rajoy, which implicitly leaves the door open for an alternative candidate. Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría would appear to be the obvious choice.

So that's one option. The other is a center-left alliance of PSOE and Podemos, which would also need the support of some regional parties to rule. Which would mean the PSOE offering a Catalan referendum, which Sánchez probably couldn't offer even if he wanted to.

I suppose the difference between the Spain and Catalonia situations, vis-à-vis the question of negotiations to form a government, is that the Catalans have the advantage of a seriously big question, a national project, which dominates and blurs party politics. This is, at least in part, intentional. But it's also helpful because in the end, there are enough people who actually believe in that project that it can be used to forge tough political agreements, like the CUP forcing Mas to step aside and then backing one of his proteges for president. Spain has nothing remotely similar on the table. You hear terms like 'constitutional reform' and 'new transition' bandied about but unlike Catalonia, where 48% of voters voted for unambiguously pro-independence parties, the 4 main parties at Spain level don't have a coherent vision of the nation to offer voters. Even the upstarts – Podemos and Cs – have been unable to explain to voters what Spain looks like in their vision of the future. This is either because they don't really know or don't really care… I suspect it's a mixture of the two, personally.

In the end, say what you will about the independence process and its putative ephemerality, at least it's a project. Spain has yet to come up with something similar and the best options for change – Podemos and Cs – don't have the support. So it's Soraya for president and continuity, or new elections with nothing any clearer.

Legalism and coercion: two problems with Span's approach to Catalonia

As I said in my post the other day, opponents of Catalan independence rarely frame their arguments in terms of the benefits of remaining part of Spain. On the contrary, they're limited to one main argument:

1 Catalan separatism is illegal; and therefore Catalan separatism is undemocratic.

Allow me to present an expanded version: in a constitutional democracy like Spain, the rule of law is paramount. Under the Spanish constitution, Catalonia separating from Spain would be illegal, as would holding a referendum on indepedendence without parliametary approval. Because the Catalan separatist parties insist on pursuing this path without permission and in contravention of the constitution, they are challenging the rule of law. Ergo, they and their supporters are undemocratic.

Read as many PP, PSOE, SCC, Cs, UPyD, central government, foreign office, etc briefings as you like: that is pretty much the only argument ever given against the movement in support of a Catalan referendum. And you can see why: if a thing is illegal and undemocratic, it's bad. It sounds like something from Russia or some ghastly place like that. It doesn't fit with our values.

It's also a nice, short soundbite. If the BBC, FT, Bloomberg, etc ask the Moncloa for a quote on Catalan independence, they only have to say "Mature democracy… rule of law… illegal… undemocratic". I mean, SCC's interminable PDFs pretty much write themselves (you'd almost think it was the same people writing them, but that's by the by). It's an argument which works in today's climate of churnalism, rolling news and short attention spans.

Apart from the fact that I think the Spanish government and their unionist friends should be making the case for staying part of Spain in a positive way, something really irritates me about the 'undemocratic' argument. I think it's because it's based on a combination of a cynically simplistic vision of what democracy is and how it can be practiced, and a highly restrictive and legalistic approach to the constitution which fails to accept the duty in a democracy of ensuring that the law doesn't actively cause political problems to arise. I think this says a lot about Spain in general and about its right wing in particular.

The main problem with this argument is that it reframes Spanish democracy as coercive rather than consensual. When a constitutional democracy acts legally to restrict basic or universal rights against the will of a section of its society, it acts coercively. This coercive nature actually fits with many policies promoted by the current government. From the attempted abortion law reform to the new gagging and anti-protest law to its treatment of Catalonia's right to self determination, you can see a clear pattern. I call this attitude coercive because while the argument is always given (and generally with a nasty smirk) that the constitution provides paths by which the Catalan government could theoretically hold a referendum, in practical terms none of these paths leads anywhere.

Societat Civil Catalana adds nothing to the debate about Catalan independence

Reading through the interminable policy statement PDFs issued by Societat Civil Catalana, you realize that there is a fundamental problem with SCC's approach. Partly, it lies in the way it chooses to define democracy (and what is 'undemocratic'). But most of all, SCC fails to offer a compelling argument for remaining part of Spain. It instead focuses on a cold, legalistic line which is pretty much identical to that used by the Spanish government.

By focusing on this as its main defense of the status quo, SCC has made a strategic mistake. Not only because it's obvious that they've intentionally opted for an unnuanced view of what 'democracy' means, but also because as they focus so heavily on this legal argument, they fail to make a positive case for Catalonia continuing as part of the Spanish state.

When you think about it, SCC actually adds nothing to the debate. Its entire strategy is effectively identical to that of the state, which has repeatedly sought to criminalize an entirely peaceful political process which has seen millions of people taking part in mass demonstrations and non-binding 'consultations'. The SCC, then, whether or not it is actually independent of the Spanish state, is in effect singing from the same song sheet. This may well be the reason why it has failed as an organization: when asked recently how many members the group had, a spokesman eventually responded – "75". Even in a climate where it may be difficult to get people excited about defending the status quo, that number is lamentably poor. This, surely, is the result of a failure to galvanize support for a positive vision of continued union.

I think this could be a huge strategic mistake. By demonizing those well-meaning citizens of Catalonia who would like to be able to vote on self-determination as 'illegal' and 'undemocratic', rather than promoting the benefits of continued union (as 'Better Together' tried to regarding Scotland and the UK), the SCC isn't making an active case for union. Indeed, it seems that the SCC and the Spanish state have both given up on a large section of Catalan civil society. Much like the PP in Catalonia, which really only exists as way of leveraging more votes in places like Extremadura where an anti-Catalan attitude always goes down well. What this says about the inevitability of eventual independence, I will leave for another day.

The question is: why doesn't SCC open a new front in the debate? Why can't it advocate for staying part of Spain?

Juan Carlos I abdicates: Spain enters a new era

So Juanca has finally abdicated, official immediately. It was a 'surprise' announcement which shouldn't really have surprised us at all. The timing was obvious: a week after the EU elections, so as not to get people thinking too hard  about how they want to be governed. This would have been agreed by the twin pillars of a crumbling political system: the PP and the PSOE.

This is the key gesture launching a process which will attempt to preserve the status quo against serious threats including the royal family's declining popularity, the failure of the bipartisan political system and the Catalan independence movement. The plan is probably to have a quick succession, coronation and then a series of constitutional changes 'proposed by the new king' in order to reduce the increasing discontent across the country. I'm not sure that they haven't left it too long.

Has no one told Rajoy that he should be next?

Justifying political violence in Spain and Catalonia

Two cases in the couple of weeks have resurrected the spectre of political violence in Spain. At least, they have if you're a right-winger. Firstly, the man responsible for destroying the PSC – Pere Navarro – was insulted and 'punched' while attending a mystic ritual in Terrassa's main temple. He and his party, along with the rest of the Spanish right, immediately leapt on the incident as a sign of the 'atmosfera de crispació' – 'increasing social tension caused by the pro-referendum sentiment in Catalonia' (paraphrased). Navarro himself did the rounds the next day, telling anyone who would listen that he was 'convinced' that the attack had something to do with the independence movement. No evidence for this link, of course, except that the woman who attacked Navarro called him "un grandíssim fill de puta". (Turns out she was someone who had argued with Navarro for years about Terrassa's town hall's Catalan flag being dirty – she denies hitting Navarro).

This week the PP's cacique in León, Isabel Carrasco was shot dead in the street, in what some English commentators referred to as an 'assassination' [false friend? or does any murder of a politician automatically equal assassination? I think the motive has to be political rather than personal]. This time, the right blamed the killing on the 'atmosfera de crispación' in Spain, whereby politicians are regularly jeered and insulted and in which anti-austerity protests have targeted politicians' homes ('escraches' – a form of protest I thoroughly support). El Mundo's editorial to this effect was published even though everyone already knew that the murder was almost certainly the result of a personal vendetta. The two suspected murderers are both also members of the PP.

Now politicians and newspapers trying to take advantage of farce or tragedy is nothing new. In fact, it's practically chapter 1 in the politics playbook (Spain edition). In this case, however, conservative forces have responded in identical ways to two significantly different incidents. And they way they have responded tells us a lot about the way they think. There is a determination on the side of the Spanish right that any political movement which acts in opposition to its central policies is inherently a destabilising factor which is capable of violence. Multiple parties here talk about 'tensions' and 'division' in society (never along class lines, of course: always along political or ethnic lines) – as a sort of intentional self-fulfilling prophecy.

There's a subtext to all this talk of potential and actual violence in the Catalan and Spanish political scene, and it's not aimed at the left. When El Mundo effectively says that a murder is the natural result of anti-austerity protests, it is not just trying to win political points. There is a subtle implication behind Navarro's words and El Mundo's editorial. The implication is that 'in the current climate', political violence is inevitable. Inevitable and therefore, to be expected. Expected and therefore, to a certain degree, justified.

Suarez and Son

It's sad when anyone is on their last lap. A deeply personal time which families normally spend together.

Which makes Adolfo hijo's announcement of his dad's impending demise feel more than a little weird to me.

But hey, I've never quite understood the praise for Suarez either. That he was 'important' is obvious: he was the first elected PM since the 1930s. Anyone in that position would have been 'important'. But as with Juanca, I feel he gets a bit too much praise for doing what he had to do. Had he failed to promote the democratic transition, something else would have happened. He was a weak leader and his weakness helped trigger the 1981 coup attempt / reality TV show (depending whether you could be bothered to watch the end of Salvados the other day). In a way, he is the template for poor leadership that Spain has been hobbled with ever since.

Catalonia independence referendum: date, questions and Spanish response

As you'll have heard by now. A referendum on Catalan independence "will be held" on November 9 2014. It will consist of two questions: "Should Catalonia be a state? And if so, should it be an independent state?". CiU, ERC, ICV-EUiA and CUP agreed these terms. This represents a plurality of the parties in the Catalan parliament. The agreement came days before the potential collapse of the CiU government over a budget vote due next week.

The response from Rajoy was immediate: "It's not negotiable. It won't happen".

Jordi Cañas of C's (such a fitting name) maybe hinted at the unionist approach on TV3 just now: "There won't be a referendum in November next year" he said, "there will be elections". And as suggested here before, this is the most likely strategy of Spanish opposition to Catalan independence: deny the right to a referendum and thereby encourage the 'other path to independence' – elections followed by a unilateral declaration of independence. This would put Madrid in a much better position in terms of international support and negotiating power. It is, I reckon, the preferred outcome in Madrid because of how easy it would be to paint the Catalans as thoroughly antidemocratic, as well as sowing disagreement between the pro-referendum parties (Iniciativa won't agree to a UDI as an election pledge, I shouldn't think).

So, in short: this time next year, we'll still be talking about what might happen.

Latest poll data shows 50-point lead for independence in Catalonia

A follow-up from my recent post taking a quick and dirty look at polling numbers. As per usual, these polls are certainly not 100% reliable.

In this case, the poll [PDF] was carried out by GAPS for the pro-independence AMI. What that means is hard to say but they certainly don't appear to have asked respondents about a possible '3rd way' of increased self-government for Catalonia. This option, were it made available to voters, would reduce the weight of the independence vote. This is pointed out by another poll carried out by pro-federal newspaper El Periódico. Their poll suggests equal support for increased autonomy and independence, but confirms 80% support for some change in the relationship between Catalonia and Spain.

The other potentially misleading change in the GAPS poll is that it includes 16 and 17 year-olds and non-Spanish citizens. That is to say, everyone aged 16 up and registered legally with a town hall in Catalonia. This is not the same as other polls that have used the same electorate as vote in elections to the Catalan parliament, which is limited to Spanish citizens of 18 years and over registered with a Catalan town hall.

It's difficult to say how much of a difference this would make: 16 and 17 year olds in, say, Olot are probably a lot (heh) more likely to vote yes to independence. But there aren't that many of them. There are plenty more people of South American origin of all ages in BCN metro who are less likely to vote Yes.

All that said, this newest poll results in a 50% point lead for the Yes vote. Even an enormous margin of error would still leave a significant majority voting in favor of independence. Here are the numbers:

Numbers
1% = 54138,50
5413850 electorate*

YES 3167102 (58.5%)
NO 1044873 (19.3%)

Remove undecided and abstentions.

Total: 4211975 (1% = 42119.75)

Yes: 75%
No: 24%

*NB – I have just used the same number for the electorate as before because it would take me too long to work out the adjusted number. It doesn't affect the percentages anyway.

My opinion: if a referendum were ever held (which doesn't seem likely), it would naturally come down to the question. If a 3rd option of increased autonomy were included, this would successfully split the pro-independence vote. If it was a simple Yes/No question, the Yes response would win a massive victory.

I feel that this makes the likelihood of a referendum being held seriously unlikely. Spain will find it much easier to avoid negotiating with Catalonia if it prevents a vote from happening. Currently, the situation probably favored in Madrid is that Catalonia doesn't hold a referendum but rather issues a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). This would seriously limit vital international support and enable Madrid to depict the Catalan government as acting undemocratically.