notes from Catalonia on the eve of tomorrow’s elections

On October 27th, the Catalan parliament honoured the result of the independence referendum held on October 1st by voting in favour of a unilateral declaration of independence. Within hours the Spanish Senate in turn voted to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to suspend regional autonomy and dissolved the Catalan Parliament. Prime Minister Rajoy immediately called for regional elections to be held on December 21st.

On the eve of the Catalan elections, here is another update courtesy of my friend in Barcelona. Firstly, in response to the anti-democratic clampdown on Catalonia since the independence referendum:

Things are rather complicated at the moment. We’ve had a “coup d’etat” by the Spanish state (government and lawcourts working together; no independent judiciary here), although of course from their point of view, it is the Catalan side that have staged one of those.

Whichever way, I don’t think the Catalan leaders deserve to be in custody (this could mean up to four years before trial), and even less go to prison for up to thirty years if found guilty (which they might well be). To me this means that anybody, not just them, can be put in prison for their political ideas, whether they’re peacefully demonstrating, or striking, or whatever. Anything can be judged as “sedition” these days.

Something else that has happened is that Catalan self-government, which is in fact older the Spanish constitution, has been suspended, and we may not get it back after the election. The Spanish government have made it clear that it all depends on whether the “wrong” side win or not. Rigging is definitely on the cards.

In the meantime, freedom of expression is being curtailed, sometimes in bizarre ways: for example, yellow lights in public fountains have been banned, because they evoke the yellow ribbons that independentists wear as a protest against the arrests. And school teachers who dared hold debates in class about the police violence on October 1st have been taken to court for it. What gets to me is that many people refuse to see how worrying these things are. I suppose normalizing it all is a survival strategy, since the alternative, i.e. being aware of what’s going on, makes one anxious and afraid.

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Secondly, on the prospects for tomorrow’s vote and the likely repercussions:

I don’t know what polls you looked at, but the ones that newspapers of all tendencies have published here say that it will be a close thing between Esquerra Republicana and Citizens. I’m sending you a link to an article in the Financial Times (sorry about the rotten source) that presents the data as it has appeared in Spanish and Catalan media.

I don’t have a clue how valid the polls are. All I can say is that most newspapers in Spain are right wing, so if all these right-wing media (including FT) are saying the independentists have a good chance of winning, maybe they will win. On the other hand, they might be deliberately exaggerating the independentists’ chances in order to encourage unionist participation.  Who knows?

As for the Thursday vote, that’s another conundrum. Some say that an election on a working day is likely to have lower participation than on a Sunday [in Spain elections are usually held on weekends], since people in precarious jobs (i.e. most workers) will probably hesitate to ask their bosses permission to go to the polling station (though legally they’re entitled to four hours off to do so). In principle lower participation should damage the unionist side, since abstention in Catalan election has traditionally been quite high on that camp. But of course this is an unusual election and they should be more motivated than in the past. Maybe only the staunchest people on both sides will make the effort to vote, and if this is the case, the non-committal Podemos-type left (Catalunya en Comú) will do badly. But this could work to the latter’s advantage after all, because if there is a hung parliament (there may well be a draw between the two blocks), they might become the arbiters of the situation and force some sort of compromise solution. Otherwise, there would have to be a repeat of the election. And so on and so forth…

The one thing that’s clear to me, in answer to your question, is that if the independentists win, they won’t be able to go ahead with their separatist agenda for the simple reason that their leaders are either exiled, or in prison, or on bail under promise not to break the law again, or indicted, or about to be indicted, or in the case of CUP (the radical independentist party), quite likely to be made illegal. In fact they haven’t even been able to talk much during the election campaign, since saying certain things would mean an arrest. It’ll be quite an act of protest on the part of Catalan voters if they win, given these circumstances; and in fact this is why, for the first time in my life, I’m going to vote for Esquerra Republicana. But it will be a symbolic act and nothing else.

Something else that may well happen is a rigged election. I know this sounds weird and impossible in a European country, but a lot of weird and impossible things have happened over here since last September, so if I’m paranoid, it’s not without some justification. For example, the IT company hired by the Spanish government to count the votes is one that already raised suspicion when in the last Spanish election (the one that had to be repeated) Podemos lost about one million votes in six months. Apparently this company have close ties with Partido Popular and have been appointed arbitrarily and without following due procedure. The rumours of rigging are so widespread that there will be the largest number of voluntary observers in polling stations ever. But what happens once the data is sent to the central system is more difficult to keep track of. Would it really be so difficult for the Spanish government to alter the results?

Finally, I’m not surprised that May is backing Rajoy and that the media have stopped being interested in us. We’re after all of no economic or strategic importance to anybody. And I guess from the point of view of the rulers of Europe, having authoritarian regimes ruling peripheral countries like Spain or Greece can only be a good thing. After all we had Franco for forty years and nobody batted an eyelid, so long as the US could keep its military bases in the peninsula. I don’t think things have changed that much.

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Update:

On Friday 22nd, the day after the elections, Democracy Now! interviewed Sebastiaan Faber, professor of Hispanic studies at Oberlin College and author of the new book “Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography.”

Faber compared Spain’s clampdown on the independentist movement to “a kind of McCarthyism”:

It’s really important to understand that despite the fact that what—despite what happened yesterday, where the pro-independence parties continued to hold onto a majority of seats, this judicial process is continuing. In fact, this very morning, so the morning after the elections, the Spanish Supreme Court announced that it was further indicting a bunch of other leaders of the pro-independence movement, of all the different pro-independence parties, as well as the civil society movement that has been supporting independence.

And you can describe this as a kind of McCarthyism, where what is, in principle, a legitimate political position, which is the idea that Catalonia is better off on its own as an independent republic, has become criminalized. And in the same way that in the 1950s communism was a reason to persecute political ideas, the same is happening now in Spain, where the judicial branch of the Spanish state is applying pressure and sort of setting boundaries to what is sayable and thinkable politically.

Regarding the future, he said:

Rajoy has said already, this morning in a press conference, that he is not going to talk with Puigdemont anywhere. Rajoy, in his typical stubborn denial fashion, has said he is not going to do that. It’s really—one could wonder how long this attitude of Rajoy, this kind of denialism of Rajoy, can withstand reality, the political reality of the fact that at least about half of people in Catalonia do not see the Spanish state as their state and want to leave. It’s really unclear whether Rajoy can keep this up, but he’s going to, for sure, try.

Currently, the Catalan self-government continues to be revoked. Rajoy said this morning he will—the self-government will be reinstituted as soon as a new government has been formed. And now the question is whether the three pro-independence parties will be able to actually form a government. They do have a majority of seats, but there’s three of them, and they don’t see eye to eye on everything. So it’s still up for question whether this government can be formed. And it’s up to question how the government will look, because of the 70 pro-independence deputies that were elected yesterday, eight are either in exile or in prison currently.

Click here to watch the interview and read a full transcript at the Democracy Now! website.

 

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