Tag Archives: Spain

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:

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.

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?

From the left towards Catalan independence

Fellow traveler Kate Shea Baird sums it all up quite well. I feel it's important for those of us on the left who support Catalan independence to remember that we want independence in order to deliver a better country. Not just any country. An independent Catalonia, sí o sí, is not the aim and never should be. I don't consider Catalans to be living under a repressive regime (unless you mean the Mossos) and so I don't buy the liberation trope. And while I wouldn't like to see Artur Mas behind bars for organizing the consulta, I'd crack the cava open if he and the rest of his party were sent down for corruption.

The pro-independence left (mainly the CUP and elements of Iniciativa and a handful of people at ERC) must maintain its focus through all the twists and turns in this process. We must, above all, fight for our values as the keystone of our support for independence: we want a better country. We want a country that helps the poorest, defends labor, looks after its citizens' health, educates its young people, invests in the arts and culture, promotes sustainable living and tourism, and rejects CiU's corruption and the neo-liberal model. And because we're on the left, we must want all these things for Spain as well.

That's the Catalan republic that I defend.

Perfect timing for Catalan independence on #9N?

One of the recent posts I wrote on here asked at which point the Catalan government would 'cross the Rubicon' into potential illegality in the 'process' towards independence. Today, less than 48 hours from the popular consultation on independence, it seems like that moment has arrived.

The Spanish government has had the Constitutional Tribunal suspend all preparations for Sunday's 'participatory process'. Today, the Catalan government has made clear that it will not hand responsibility for organizing 9N over to civic associations. In other words, The Catalan government appears to be at the least very nearly in breach of the Constitutional Tribunal's suspension order.

So why now?

There are several factors that make 9N the perfect moment for disobedience on the part of the Catalan authorities.

1 The Catalan government already backed down from the original consulta. In order to maintain the process, the government needs to stand firm now.
2 Disobedience at this point could have multiple effects but the most important aspect is how the Spanish government responds. Having already stated that it would not act "if the consulta were organized by civic associations", it seems like the Spanish government may have nearly committed itself to instructing the police to interfere with Sunday's vote. This might be a deciding factor in the future of the process. If the Spanish interior ministry were to order police (including Mossos) to seize the ballot boxes, it would be doing so under the gaze of hundreds of accredited foreign journalists and press agencies. For this reason, I strongly suspect that it won't act but will try instead to dismiss the poll as meaningless.

This highlights yet another oddity in the PP's campaign against the consulta: this 'consulta-lite', adopted because the full non-binding consulta was made illegal, was initially dismissed by the PP. Alicia Sanchez-Camacho urged MAdrid not to act against it because it was such a joke. Then, when the Generalitat managed to get all the volunteers it wanted in a few days, the PP changed its tune and again took the Generalitat's plans to court. This indicates a lack of strategy on the part of the Spanish government.

3 The Spanish government seems to be weakened internationally due to the constant stream of corruption cases (which also affect Catalonia, of course). The Economist, Bloomberg and BBC have all published pieces criticizing Spain in recent days. This adds to the feeling that this might be the best time to take advantage of reasonably positive press coverage for Catalonia, and a slightly negative international attitude towards Spain.

My predictions for #9N:

Turnout – Very important. Unfortunately, I doubt that turnout will reach 50%. It may not even reach 33%. If it did exceed 50%, there would be something to celebrate.

Police – I doubt that the police will be asked to intervene. If they were, the vast majority would obey orders, including the Mossos. But it could lead to unpleasant scenes.

Results – The lower the turnout, the higher the support will be for independence. Some parties, particularly Iniciativa, are calling on supporters to vote Yes to the first question and free choice on the second.

Trouble – I doubt there will be disturbances. That would change if the police were sent in. I read today that Montblanc is setting up concrete barriers to prevent vehicular access to the old town (which strikes me as needless and potentially dangerous – what if there's a fire?). Areas like this would become potential flashpoints in case the vote were stopped by force. The risk of the far-right trying to stir up trouble is always present but these groups have very limited support.

Outcome – Oriol Junqueras will announce his roadmap to independence on Monday. Smart of him to wait for the results of the consulta. The most likely outcome, in my opinion, is that turnout well be lower than desired but will indicate growing support for independence. ERC and the CUP will push for elections soon and will try to guarantee that they take the form of a plebiscite on independence. If they succeed, and Podemos decide to stand (the feeling is that they might not: they're trying to keep their powder dry until next year's general elections), they would be forced to declare a position, and it will probably be in support of union with Spain. ICV, PSC, PP and Cs will oppose any kind of plebiscite and may even refuse to stand on a No platform. In short, by Monday nothing might have changed. But everything might have changed too.

Which is why I'm going to vote.

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.

Could the PP's luck be changing?

Some days you wake up to a glimmer of good news in the murk of crisis-hit Spain.

The investigating judge on the Bárcenas case sent police into the PP's headquarters on calle Genova in Madrid last night. It looks as though the bill for renovating the party HQ a few years ago matches an amount in Barcenas's 'double accounting', which would strongly suggest that the PP paid for this major construction project in cash. Cash it received in illegal and undocumented donations.

Now, I've lived here long enough to learn that a glimmer of hope can often turn into an oncoming train in the blink of an eye. But I'm also integrated enough to be able to take whatever pleasure I can from small moments such as this.

We're doing Christmas at home this year for the first time ever. I plan to do some non-political stuff over at the other place. Unless the king abdicates, I might not be back on here until the new year. Bon nadal, merry Christmas and Nadolig llawen to all!

Where is Catalonia's Rubicon on the road to independence?

So the gradual creep towards independence continues in Catalonia. A referendum remains highly unlikely as the only remote possibility of one being held is it being approved in the Congreso in Madrid, which won't happen because the PP has an absolute majority (and anyway, the PSOE is in total disarray, and so can't be relied on, except to be unreliable). Duran i Lleida – 'king troll' – warns frequently of the risks and possibilities of a unilateral declaration of independence. CiU is trying to slow the process, probably at least partly so it can carry on privatising everything in Catalonia, and ERC is chomping at the bit.

Legal consequences

All of this has me thinking: if we know, more or less, that a referendum cannot be legally held (the Catalan parliament will pass a law allowing it but this is understood to not be within an autonomous region's capacities), then maybe we start to see the Spanish strategy. They want to force Catalonia into acting illegally if they want to proceed towards independence. The question is: is Artur Mas really willing to take this step? And if he is, when will it come?

For Mas, I imagine it must be tempting. If everything went according to plan, he'd be remembered by Catalans for taking a stand, not for corruption and the destruction of Catalonia's social services. He'd be like a new Jordi Pujol! On the other hand, if there's an expert at saving his own skin, it's Artur Mas. We can be sure that some of the time he spends drumming up contracts on foreign visits is dedicated to establishing Artur Mas as a Reasonable Man in the eyes of foreign officials.

Where is the Rubicon?

In the end, Catalonia's Rubicon has two potential locations: an illegal referendum or a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). If Catalonia attempts to hold a referendum without Spain's permission, the vote will not be accepted as legal by the Spanish government. This would probably damage the potential turnout, currently reckoned to be really large. I can't see Madrid suddenly agreeing to a referendum. But would it act to prevent one? It's difficult to say. Spain's already pretty unpopular in the EU, and preventing a referendum from being held, even though it would be an internal, legal issue, wouldn't look good. But that probably wouldn't be enough to stop Spain from intervening.

Unilateral declaration of independence

I expect that if Catalonia says it will hold a referendum, the Spanish authorities will warn that to proceed would lead to grave legal consequences. I also suspect that if Catalonia insisted, Madrid would find itself under enormous pressure to intervene. In the end, I'm not sure that a referendum will ever be held. I think it's much more likely that fresh elections will be held with a UDI as the deciding factor. If this happens, expect ERC to win, CiU to drop, C's to rise, ICV to remain more or less in place, and the CUP to see a rise. The PSC and PPC will both decline even further.

But a UDI is also illegal and far more so than a referendum. Surely Spain would have to act against a UDI, but how? Suspending Catalonia's autonomy? Arresting the president and govern?

I've always been against UDIs because while I agree that sovereignty resides in the people, not in the Spanish crown, I feel that international support will be difficult to obtain without a clear, free and fair referendum. If Spain blocks a referendum, then, it is of prime importance for Catalonia to make clear that it has exhausted the legal possibilities open to it.

International opinion will be vital and, while not exactly popular, Spain has far more clout in that area than Catalonia does. 2014 might still be an interesting year.

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:

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.