Catalan Independence: 4 Notes on a House of Mirrors

by Kate Shea Baird

14 January 2016

On Saturday afternoon, Catalonia had its habemus papum, white smoke moment when pro-independence parties struck a deal to invest the relatively unknown mayor of Girona, Carles Puigdemont, as president of Catalonia, allowing them to push ahead with an 18-month roadmap to secede from Spain.

The announcement came after three months of gridlock, name-calling and blame-gaming between the Together for Yes (Junts pel Sí) coalition and the anti-capitalist CUP in the wake of elections billed by both groups as a plebiscite on independence. A sign of just how far down to the wire it went: the parliamentary session on the presidential nomination concluded less than two hours before the deadline that would have triggered a fresh round of elections in the region.

A roadmap to a republic or a road to nowhere?

What are the prospects for the independence roadmap? Could a unilateral breakaway from Spain really happen? What is its radical potential? Unfortunately, the formation of the new Catalan government doesn’t make it much easier to predict what might happen next, or to understand how the independence project relates to the crisis of the Spanish establishment and other political movements that have blossomed across the country in recent years.

Depending on who you ask, Catalonia is either on the precipice of unilateral secession or stuck in a perpetual groundhog day. For some, the independence process represents the best hope for democratic regeneration in Spain, while for others it’s become a cynical piece of political theatre at the service of the powers that be. More confusing still, neither of these two readings is confined to the left or the right of the political spectrum, or even to the pro- or anti- independence camps! Catalonia is like a house of mirrors in which conflicting visions of the likelihood and desirability of independence bulge and shrink in a way that would make Salvador Dalí proud.

A game of chicken.

It remains to be seen how far the new Catalan government will go in defying Spanish law. Many Catalans, including a significant proportion of those who support independence, are sceptical of the willingness of Puigdemont’s Convergencia, a party with a long history of allying itself with the Spanish right, to openly engage in institutional disobedience. If CUP has swallowed the bitter pill of enabling the continuation of a Convergencia-led government, it’s because the party hopes this path can be forced through pressure within parliament and on the streets.

If Puigdemont fails to take significant steps towards secession within 18 months, the fragile pro-independence alliance in parliament will surely crumble. However, if he does, he’ll face significant difficulties in justifying that he has the democratic mandate to do so.

The democratic deficit.

The most egregious democratic deficit is, of course, the one that has denied Catalonia its right to self-determination despite overwhelming popular support for the principle and mass demonstrations calling for a referendum in recent years. However, the independence process is now testing the limits of its own democratic legitimacy. Pro-independence parties insisted on defining the most recent Catalan election as a plebiscite – ‘the referendum Spain won’t allow us to hold’ – but now they’re pushing ahead with a unilateral secession plan despite winning only 47.8% of the popular vote.

The decision to pursue independence on this shaky mandate weakens the project in two ways. First, it undermines the moral authority the movement enjoyed when it was simply calling for a democratic vote in the face of an authoritarian, intransigent central government. Second, from a purely practical point of view, a process of illegal, unilateral breakaway would have a hard time even if the 50% ceiling had been narrowly broken. By renouncing the referendum, the movement is abandoning the only goal that enjoys the kind of broad social support capable of posing a challenge to the political and legal authority of the Spanish state (over 70% of people in Catalonia support holding a referendum on independence).

Change in Spain?

The independence movement has flourished on the premise that reform in Spain is impossible. Nonetheless, in Catalonia, pro-independence parties were beaten to first place in the recent general election by the Together We Can (En Comú Podem) coalition. This alliance between Podemos and progressive Catalan parties called for a referendum in the framework of constitutional reform to recognize the plurinational nature of Spain.

Thanks to pressure from its regional coalitions, and the high-profile support of the Barcelona mayor, Ada Colau, Podemos has made a referendum a red line in its negotiations on forming a government with the Spanish socialists (PSOE), a party that is deeply divided on the issue. Narrowly beaten into third place in the overall results, in the best case scenario, Podemos could force the socialists to allow a referendum in exchange for joining a coalition government. However, even if it doesn’t have the strength to force a referendum, there is now a major political party in the Spanish Congress making the case for Catalan self-determination as part of a broader democratizing agenda for the first time.

The independence movement has responded to the rise of Podemos and the municipal movement represented by Ada Colau in a number of ways. On the one hand, the party’s commitment to the Catalan cause has frequently been questioned; Podemos has been seen as a rival and accused of offering a false promise of change that only independence can truly provide.

On the other, not everyone in favour of independence ranks the issue as their top political priority, or sees pursuing independence and reform in Spain as mutually exclusive endeavours. These people, the kind who voted for Ada Colau in the municipal elections, CUP in the Catalan elections, and Together We Can in the Spanish elections, may hold the key to the kind of non-binary thinking – and creative alliances – that have the potential to make a Republic of Catalonia anything more than a dream.

Photo: Gustavo Oliveira/Flickr

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