Spain: Stalemate continues after latest Catalan elections
A man leaves a voting booth at a polling station for the Catalan regional election in Torredembarra, near Tarragona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. | Gonzalo Arroyo / AP

On December 21, the Autonomous Region of Catalonia in Northeastern Spain held new parliamentary elections to replace the legislature which had been deposed earlier by decree of the right-wing government in Madrid. However, the elections resolved nothing, with the electorate still split on the issue of independence from Spain.

The election was scheduled after the Spanish central government in Madrid invoked Article 155 of the 1978 constitution, thereby dissolving the Generalitat, or autonomous regional government of Catalonia, and deposing its leadership.

This action happened after the Generalitat tried to hold a referendum on full independence for Catalonia on October 1, 2017.  Although Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Generalitat at the time, claimed that 90 percent of participating voters had supported the independence option, and seemed to issue a unilateral declaration of independence, many actually boycotted the election. Furthermore, Mariano Rajoy’s right-wing government had sent in security forces to put a stop to the referendum, leading to violent confrontations in which election officials and voters were assaulted by the famous Civil Guards.

So Rajoy imposed Article 155 and subsequently dissolved the autonomous Catalan parliament, leading to the December 21 poll.

Not one for half measures, Rajoy also announced the prosecution of the former leaders of the Generalitat, some of whom were arrested. Others, including Puigdemont, fled the country.

The election results do not show a significant shift in the polarized situation between pro- and anti-independence forces. The biggest loser election was Rajoy’s own People’s Party, which retained only four of the eleven seats it held going into the election. Most of its conservative, anti-independence support appears to have been picked up by another right-wing, anti-independence party, The Party of the Citizenry, or “C’s”.  This party increased its popular vote by 7.44 percent over the last elections, held in 2015. It gained eleven new seats, brining its total of 36 and making it the largest party in the Catalan parliament.

In the pro-independence camp, the conservative Together for Catalonia Party, or JuntsxCat, increased its representation by three seats, for a total of 34. Also in the pro-independence camp, but considerably further to the left, the venerable Catalan Republican Left and its coalition partner, Catalonia Yes, did well, picking up six new seats for a total of 32.  A smaller left-wing pro-independence party, the Popular Unity Candidacy, or CUP, lost six seats and ended up with only four.

The centrist Social Democratic alliance, which strongly opposes independence, picked up one seat for a total of 17. The left wing Catalonia in Common—We Can coalition (CatComú-Podem) suffered a disappointment. This group opposes a unilateral declaration of independence, but rather suggests increased autonomy within a progressive federal republic, i.e. autonomy combined with the abolition of the monarchy. On December 21, it was supported by Catalan and Spanish Communists and by the Podemos Party, a socialist party to the left of the social democrats and allied with the Communists nationally.  Its basic argument was “class [struggle] unites us, nationalism divides us.”

The coalition sharply criticized Puigdemont’s actions in moving toward a unilateral declaration of independence, but was even more critical of Rajoy’s repressive measures against Catalonia in invoking Article 155, as well as the Spanish prime minister’s anti-labor, anti worker, anti-civil liberties, and neoliberal policies. But in the uproar and polarization created by the controversy over independence, it lost three of the eleven seats it held before December 21, ending up with only eight.

Though the Citizens’ Party won the largest number of seats, it would be very hard for it to form a government. Even if it could get the social democrats to join a Citizens and PP coalition government, the resulting 57 seats would not produce nearly enough votes in parliament to constitute the 68 required to form a majority. And the social democrats would run the risk of antagonizing the working class elements of their base if they joined two such reactionary parties.

However, the pro-independence parties can probably form a majority coalition government, as the 34 seats won by JuntsxCat, plus the 32 won by the Republican Left and the four won by CUP, come to a total of 70, two more than what is needed to govern. Even if such a coalition were achieved, it would be an uneasy one, as the two left-wing pro-independence parties, Republican Left and CUT, see eye-to-eye with JuntsxCat on the independence issue only, and not on economic and social policy.

Finally, there is a question of who would actually run the government from Barcelona. The former head of the Catalan Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, is in self-exile in Brussels, Belgium and risks arrest for “sedition” and “rebellion” should he return to Spain. His vice president and the head of the Republican Left Party, Oriol Junqueras, is already detained on similar charges, as are other members of the former government.

At the mass level, Catalonia is also split, as evidenced by the popular vote on December 21. Turnout was just over 79 percent, with over four million people voting. Of these, over half voted for pro-independence parties of right and left, while the rest voted for parties that not only oppose independence but are unwilling to compromise on the issue in terms of some kind of increased autonomy. Spanish nationalism confronts Catalan nationalism with neither inclined to blink first.

The Marxist left in Catalonia and Spain sees the outcome of the elections as a defeat for the Spanish and Catalan working class. In an article in Mundo Obrero, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Spain, the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia-Viu (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya-Viu), which is a Catalan communist-left socialist party, issued a clear warning:

“The results of the election of December 21 have ended up being marked by polarization on the national issue, and, as a consequence, by the confrontation between two nationalist blocs: The ‘constitutionalist’ one…and the pro-independence one…”

The article goes on to say that the Citizens’ Party, having achieved the position of the largest parliamentary bloc, will use it to promote anti-social policies under the cover of Spanish nationalism. On the other hand, the results for pro-independence parties will induce Puigdemont and his allies to try to return to power. “We…consider that the electoral results don’t justify that either of these forces should keep leading us into a blind alley which will lead us to an increase of tension and social breakdown.”

Rather, says the Unified Socialist Party, it is urgent to increase grassroots organizing and agitation to put things back on a class footing, aiming to turn things around by the municipal elections scheduled for 2019. “Nationalism divides us, class unites us!”


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.