Catalan elections: victory for the right

By Frieda Park

On 1st of October last year the Catalan government called a referendum on the question of independence from Spain. This had already been rejected by the Spanish Government making it constitutionally illegal and was designed to provoke a confrontation. 

The Spanish government duly obliged with violent assaults by police on polling stations and voters. In the event only 43% of the electorate voted although 97% of those voted Yes. It was clear, however, that the vast majority of those opposed to independence boycotted the poll, making the outcome irrelevant in determining the will of the Catalan people. 

Despite having no mandate the Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, proceeded to declare independence and then suspend the declaration.  The government in Madrid took direct control of Catalonia and some leading politicians who enacted the referendum were arrested, or fled. 

Subsequent elections on 21st December served to underline how deeply divided Catalonia is on the issue. The three pro-independence parties combined, again won a majority of seats, but the total was down from 72 to 70. They got 47.6% of the vote a marginal decline on their previous performance.

The biggest single party, however, was the firmly anti-independence Cuitadans (Cuidadanos) which benefited from a collapse in support for the Popular Party of Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy who was responsible for the harsh measures of repression round the referendum. A small leftist pro-independence party, Popular Unity also lost seats as did Catalonia in Common, an alliance containing Podem (Podemos). It tried to straddle the pro and anti-independence camps. Puigdemont’s right-wing Together for Catalonia and the Republican Left both gained seats and the Socialist Party which opposed independence gained one.

If you look at this result another way, however, what is concerning is that a majority of Catalans voted for parties of the right. In total they got 51.2% of the vote and the parties with the biggest support on both sides of the independence divide were right wing. More than anything this underscores the divisive and anti-working-class nature of nationalism, which frames politics as for or against independence rather than round policies that would improve the lives of ordinary people. 

At the time the ever-escalating confrontation between Puigdemont and Rajoy served both their interests. Puigdemont’s party gained seats in the election and support for independence was consolidated in the face of police violence. For many this repression was horribly reminiscent of fascism and was reinforced by an unprecedented speech by the king, supporting the constitutional position of the Madrid Government. The current king’s father was Franco’s chosen heir. 

In this situation, it must have been harder still for voices of the left opposing independence to make themselves heard. Although the Popular Party did badly in the election in Catalonia, that is not the only arena where politics is being affected by this debate. Part of Rajoy’s uncompromising strategy will be to play to audiences in the rest of Spain who are against Catalan independence and alienated by Puigdemont’s tactics. 

In Catalonia there seems to be a belief among the pro-independence left that their nation is inherently more progressive than the rest of Spain. One banner I saw in Barcelona at Christmas proclaimed “Spain fascist – Europe supportive”. Neither half of the statement is true as the EU has gone out of its way to support Rajoy and the first part is offensive to the millions of Spanish people and their descendants who supported the Republic and fought fascism tooth and nail. 

A video doing the rounds in the aftermath of the referendum appealed for support from people outside Catalonia, including a statement that Catalonia supports European values. What’s that supposed to mean who knows and why should one assume they are automatically progressive anyway? 

A quick glance at the history of colonialism and war should give us pause for thought on the matter. Is it also saying that European values are better than values from Africa or Latin America or any other continent? Defining ourselves against others in national terms seems to lead to xenophobic assumptions, albeit they may be unconscious. 

Catalonia is the richest part of Spain and part of the appeal of the independence cause was that it could be better off keeping its wealth for itself. This is a blatant appeal to a sectional interest rather than unity and the common good. Further it also completely ignores the question of who owns and controls the wealth, a rather more significant issue than what borders are drawn on a map.

Many of the features of Catalan nationalism are very familiar to us in Scotland. The issues have been highly divisive with opinion split in both places. 

Nationalism appeals to self-interest rather than working-class unity. The enemy becomes Spain/England and not capitalism. Large sections of the left have been beguiled by the idea that their nation is better than the rest of the state they are attached to and that freed from that it would be more progressive. Making the national question the key issue paradoxically, however, opens up space for the right which is able to make headway among those opposed to independence, with their other concerns round social justice pushed to one side. This is true both in the nation seeking independence and in the one it is seeking independence from. 

The Tories have done well out of opposing Scottish independence. In both Scotland and Catalonia, the independence movement is led by pro-capitalist parties, though the Scottish National Party’s membership is at present a broad church of left and right. In Catalonia Puigdemont is much more clearly of the right and there are separate left nationalist parties. 

It looks like Catalonia is set to be embroiled in lengthy constitutional wrangling round the formation of a new government and its future relationship to Spain. But things can change quickly as they have begun to in Scotland where the SNP is losing its stranglehold on politics and Labour is beginning to recover. Let’s hope that in Catalonia working-class interests can reassert themselves soon from the mire of nationalism.

Barcelona 3 October 2017: two days after the independence referendum when 43% of the electorate voted and 97% of those voted Yes for independence.