What is Happening in Catalonia and Spain?

On October 1, 2017, the police of the Spanish State (known as the National Police) endeavored to take the polling boxes where Catalan people were voting in a referendum with two choices: for or against Catalonian independence from the Spanish State. The voting took place in barricaded buildings (most of them public schools) to protect the boxes containing the votes. With the intent to collect the boxes and stop the voting, the National Police used all types of repressive measures, from rubber bullets, to gas and batons. Nearly 900 people were seriously hurt, and two were in critical condition in area hospitals.

These televised images of the police brutality shocked the population, who responded by going to the streets in masses to protest against the National Police. These popular protests forced the repression to end by early afternoon, allowing people to keep voting until 8:00 p.m. It was the victory of the population over the Central State and its police. The repression was not able to stop the referendum, with 2.5 million voting (approximately 43% of the electorate) and 90 percent favoring independence. The police assault not only failed to stop the vote, it infuriated people who had not planned to vote because they did not sympathize with the pro-independence movement led by the Catalan government. Many of them were from the working-class districts of Barcelona. After seeing the National Police brutality, they voted as a protest against the police behavior. It also showed, among other things, the incompetence of the Spanish government and its police.

Why Did This Happen?

Most of the international press has reported on the police riots, but they did not explain the political context that has led to the current situation. Two visions of Spain have always existed. One sees Spain as a uninational state, centered in the capital of the Spanish Kingdom, Madrid. This vision denies the existence of other nations in Spain. It is based on the Borbonic Monarchy and is the vision of the Monarchic State, including the armed forces and the Catholic Church; it is the conservative version of Spain.

Another vision of Spain, however, is plurinational, which recognizes other nations in Spain, including Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia. Each one of these nations has its own language, culture, and history, and all of them prefer a republic rather than a monarchy as a form of state. It has always been the left republican vision of Spain. It had its full expression during the Second Spanish Republic, from 1931 to 1939, known for its famous reforms that included land reform, stronger unions, the establishment of the public school system, women’s suffrage, divorce, abortion, and many other highly popular reforms.

The institutions whose interests were negatively affected by these reforms—the large land owners, the bankers, and the church, among others—stimulated a military coup led by General Francisco Franco, whose troops (helped by Nazi German and Italian Fascist troops) needed three years to defeat the Second Republic. Initially they thought the coup would take just three months, but it took much longer than expected because of the enormous resistance offered by the popular classes (whose republican government only received assistance from the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent from Mexico). The so-called Non-Intervention Treaty (signed by most Western democracies and also by Hitler and Mussolini) was not respected by the Fascist states of Germany and Italy, and they continued to arm the Spanish Army. The victory of the Fascist forces led to the triumph of Franco’s regime, one of the cruelest dictatorships established in Western Europe. According to Professor Edward Malekafis, an expert on European Fascism at Columbia University in New York, for every political assassination of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, Franco completed 10,000. This Fascist state brutally repressed Catalonia, forbidding the Catalan language and culture. The dictatorship became the extreme expression of the uninational view of Spain. Before dying, Franco appointed Juan Carlos I as king (the grandson to the former king of Spain, Alfonso XIII).

How Democracy Came About in Spain in 1978

Two factors intervened to explain the transition of the Spanish State from a dictatorship to a democracy. One was the popular movements against the dictatorship, particularly accentuated in the most industrial parts of Spain, including Barcelona, Bilbao, and Madrid. All strikes were forbidden during the dictatorship and, as a consequence, every illegal strike became a political strike against the regime. This working-class pressure was very important to force a change in the dictatorship.

The second factor to stimulate Spain’s transition to a democracy was the need of the large business community (very influential in the dictatorial regime) to become integrated into the European Union. This required the dictatorial regime to open and adopt democratic features, such as the existence of political parties and the ability to carry out elections, that allowed the European Union to accept Spain. The governing right-wing forces (who were inheritors of the Fascist regime) derived enormous power from their control of the apparatuses of the state and most of the media. This power explains why the transition from dictatorship to democracy took place under conditions very favorable to those right-wing forces. They forced the left-wing parties—who were persecuted during the dictatorship—to abandon some key elements of their platforms and projects elaborated during their anti-Fascist struggle. One of those elements was their commitment to develop a plurinational state. In the new constitution, approved by the parliament in 1978, only one nation—the Spanish nation—was allowed, assigning the armed forces the task of maintaining the unity of Spain. The Socialist Party (PSOE), which in the clandestine period had proposed to establish a plurinational state, abandoned that intent (because of the pressure from the king and the armed forces) and became a major pillar of the new monarchic uninational state. And the Communist Party, which maintained its plurinational commitment, was marginalized by an electoral law that discriminated against major urban centers where the electoral base of that party—the working class—was situated. This is the origin of the events that occurred on October 1. This abandonment of the plurinational vision of the state took place at the same time that the historical memory (the intent to recover the history of the Republic) was basically forbidden and the achievements of Second Republic were completely forgotten. This silence about the past, in practice, meant the complete silence of the plurinational view of Spain. The Republic flag was forbidden, and the Borbonic Monarchic flag became the national flag.

What Happened in Catalonia?

In Catalonia, however, the plurinational vision of Spain did not disappear; the left parties continued to call for a redefinition of Spain. In 2005, a left-wing Catalan government, led by the Socialists (the Pasqual Maragall government), proposed an “Estatuto” (an autonomous law) calling for recognition of Catalonia as a nation within Spain. The proposal was approved by the Catalan Parliament, later on by the Spanish Parliament and finally, the Catalan population in a referendum.

It was vetoed, however, by the Constitutional Court, which the Popular Party (PP) controlled. The PP was founded by leading figures of the Fascist regime and still holds enormous power in the Central State. That veto was the starting point of the large demonstrations in Catalonia asking the Spanish government to approve what the Constitutional Court had vetoed. Since then, every year, more than one million people have gone to the streets on Catalonia Day, September 11, in memory of the day in 1714 when Borbonic forces defeated Catalan forces and Catalonia lost the right to self-government. The Spanish government ignored the demands by successive Catalan governments to get more autonomy, causing the radicalization of the mass movement that asked for Catalonia to be recognized as a nation and to have more autonomy within the Spanish State. That radicalization meant a major change in the type of demand they were asking for: they started calling for independence. The pro-independence sector of the Catalan population—which was never larger than 15 percent of the adult population—increased to 48 percent during the period when Spain was governed by the PP (the Spanish right-wing party.) This 48 percent translated into a majority in the Catalan parliament, because the electoral laws favored rural and conservative areas over urban and working-class areas. The pro-independence parties governed Catalonia as the majority in the Catalan parliament, led by the Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC -a right-wing party), which later changed its name to Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català (PDeCAT.) This party has governed Catalonia most of the democratic period, 1978–2016 (almost 30 years). It controls most of the apparatus of the Catalan regional government, including the public TV and the Catalan public radio. The other two parties that allied with the CDC are a center-left party, the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) (although its economic team is neoliberal), and the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), a very radical nationalist party that claims to be socialist and revolutionary (which has approved the Catalan budget containing strong austerity policies proposed by PDeCAT and ERC.) The pro-independent parties, however, are a minority in Barcelona, the capital city of Catalonia. Barcelona is governed by a new left-wing party, En Comun, allied with Unidos Podemos (a coalition of a new left-wing party in Spain, Podemos, with the renewed Communist Party, Izquiera Unida (IU).) 

The Current Situation

The approval of the independence of Catalonia in the Catalan parliament generated two responses. One was that all the parties opposed to independence abandoned the parliament (which represented the majority of the Catalan population) in protest of the way the pro-independence parties, two of them governing Catalonia in a coalition (Junts per Si in alliance with the CUP), had declared independence. A decision such as this should have been approved by two-thirds of the parliament (according to the Catalan and the Spanish law), which was not the case. The pro-independence parties argued that they had obtained independence on October 1 with 90 percent of the referendum votes in favor of independence. The anti-referendum parties considered this argument to be fallacious, since the referendum was illegal and did not have the democratic guarantees to allow for a full debate on the issues raised by the referendum. But most importantly, this 90 percent in favor of independence was only 43 percent of the voting population. The actual number of supporters for independence was a minority of Catalans. The majority of the population—and particularly working-class people, who come primarily as immigrants from other parts of Spain—was, and continues to be, against independence. They were not pro-independence, although they were outraged by the actions of the Spanish police. This explains why the Catalan trade unions (who were not in favor of independence) called a very successful general strike on October 3, two days after the actions of the Spanish police. The strike was called by the key players in civil society, such as the two largest unions, the small employer associations, the major neighborhood associations of Catalonia, the widely popular firefighters, and many others.

The other response was the approval by the Spanish State (controlled by the PP) of an exceptional clause 155 of the Spanish constitution, allowing the Spanish government to dismiss the Catalan government, the Catalan autonomy, and the Catalan parliament, governing Catalonia from Madrid. In addition, the Spanish State called for elections on December 21. This highly unpopular law in Catalonia eliminated the already limited Catalan autonomy. This law, however, became popular in the rest of Spain. The call for elections, on the other hand, is favored in large sectors of the popular classes. Today Catalonia is divided (by class) into two Catalonias. In the last elections in Barcelona, all urban districts with levels of income above the city average voted for pro-independence parties, those below (which were the majority) for parties against independence.

What the Flags Are Hiding

The PP, the right-wing party (which in the European spectrum is an ultra-right-wing party and successor of the Fascist Party), is extremely corrupt. These past weeks, several courts are judging cases of corruption that show how that party has been funded illegally. The president of that party and of the Spanish government, Mariano Rajoy, is involved in that corruption. The major national media attention and coverage, however, is on the national question. Rajoy and his party, the PP, appear as the great defender of the “unity of Spain,” the call of the Fascist military coup of 1936. His policies are strongly anti-working-class and have included labor market reforms that have reduced salaries and increased precariousness to record levels, while holding the flag calling for the “unity of Spain.” The same is happening with another right-wing neoliberal party, Ciudadanos (the Citizens), founded and funded by the major corporation of Spain (the Ibex 35).

On the Catalonia side, a similar situation has occurred. The leading party in the pro-independence government is PDECAT, which has been applying identical neoliberal policies (voting for the same labor market reforms in the Spanish parliament that were proposed by the PP), is also using the flag “defending Catalan identity” to hide the enormous cuts in the public sectors of the Catalan welfare state and the same labor market reforms that increase unemployment and precariousness and reduce salaries and social protection. Like the PP, PDECAT is one of the most corrupt parties in Europe.

A New Catalonia and a New Spain

Catalan and Spanish nationalist feelings in Spain have been used to hide the conflict of class interests. The public policies inspired by the governing nationalist parties have led to an unequal distribution of income. The income derived from labor has declined dramatically during the period of great nationalist tensions, while income derived from capital has increased significantly. Meanwhile, the national question has occupied all the attention from the political and media establishments.

A very important development occurring in Spain and in Catalonia has not been covered by the media. It is the Indignados movement (clearly inspired by the Arab Spring) that mobilized millions of people against the political establishment. Their slogan, “they do not represent us,” became very popular, and the movement has created new left-wing forces in many parts of Spain: in Madrid (Podemos), in Galicia (Mareas), and in Catalonia (en Comun). Along with a renewal of leadership of the traditional left party (IU), these left-wing parties have established a new political formation, Unidos Podemos (UP), which in a very short period of time (three years) has become the second largest political formation in the opposition and already governs in some of the most important cities in Spain (Barcelona, Madrid, Coruña, Cadiz, etc.). In Catalonia, it has won the last two elections in the Spanish parliamentary elections. It has been a political tsunami and has created an enormous hostility from the major media and the political establishment. This alliance is against the law 155 and against independence. It calls for a plurinational state and for the right of self-determination of the different nations of Spain. It is a new development that is changing the political climate in Spain as a response to people’s rejection of the highly repressive Spanish State against Catalonia, side by side with a demand for recognition of the plurinational nature of Spain. We will see what will happen next.

Vicente Navarro is Emeritus Professor of the Johns Hopkins University.