Separatists squabble as ‘healing’ election leaves Catalonia even more divided

The regional poll on 21 December that was meant to restore normality is achieving the opposite

They are the elections that many believe could shape Spain’s future by paving the way for Catalan independence. But divisions are emerging among the separatists – and the leader of the leftwing party ahead in the polls is floundering as she comes under scrutiny.

As campaigning for the 21 December elections reaches a climax, political leaders are ignoring their traditional focus on issues such as the economy and have turned this month’s contest into a race between two blocs – secessionists and constitutionalists.

Attempts by Xavier Domènech, leader of the leftwing Catalunya en Comú, to gain traction on issues such as health and education floundered as last Thursday night’s crucial first television debate involving all the main parties rarely strayed far from the national question.

Noticeably absent among the seven leaders was Marta Rovira, general secretary of the leftist-nationalist Esquerra Repúblicana Catalunya (ERC), currently ahead by a slim margin in the polls. The ERC leader and former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras is being held in Madrid for his role in the unilateral declaration of independence in October and anointed Rovira to campaign in his name.

(June 28, 2010) 

Spain’s constitutional court strikes down parts of a 2006 charter on Catalan autonomy that had originally increased the region’s fiscal and judicial powers and described it as a “nation”. The court rules that using the word “nation” has no legal value and also rejects the “preferential” use of Catalan over Spanish in municipal services. Almost two weeks later, hundreds of thousands protest on the streets of Barcelona, chanting “We are a nation! We decide!”

(September 11, 2012) 

At the height of Spain’s economic crisis, more than a million people protest in Barcelona on Catalonia’s national day, demanding independence in what will become a peaceful, annual show of strength.

(November 9, 2014) 

The pro-independence government of Artur Mas defies the Madrid government and Spain’s constitutional court by holding a symbolic vote on independence. Turnout is just 37%, but more than 80% of those who voted - 1.8 million people - vote in favour of Catalan sovereignty.

(June 9, 2017) 

Carles Puigdemont, who has replaced Mas as regional president, announces an independence referendum will be held on 1 October. Spain’s central government says it will block the referendum using all the legal and political means at its disposal.

(September 6, 2017) 

The Catalan parliament approves referendum legislation after a heated, 11-hour session that sees 52 opposition MPs walk out of the chamber in Barcelona in protest at the move. Spain’s constitutional court suspends the legislation the following day, but the Catalan government vows to press ahead with the vote.

(September 20, 2017) 

Police arrest 14 Catalan government officials suspected of organising the referendum and announce they have seized nearly 10 million ballots destined for the vote. Some 40,000 people protest against the police crackdown in Barcelona and Puigdemont accuses the Spanish government of effectively suspending regional autonomy and declaring a de facto state of emergency.

(October 1, 2017) 

Close to 900 people are injured as police attempt to stop the referendum from taking place. The Catalan government says 90% voted for independence on a turnout of 43%. 

(October 27, 2017) 

Spanish government takes control of Catalonia and dissolves its parliament after secessionist Catalan MPs voted to establish an independent republic. Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, fires regional president, Carles Puigdemont, and orders regional elections to be held on 21 December.

Politicians do not come more staunchly pro-independence than Rovira but Junqueras may live to regret his choice. She has been described as a tough scrapper with a glass jaw – and she is proving a liability when she leaves the comfort zone of the pro-independence media.

Part of the problem is language. Although Spanish is the mother tongue of more than half of Catalans, Rovira is clearly uncomfortable in anything but Catalan. This was evidently a factor in her one-on-one TV debate with Inés Arrimadas, leader of the centrist party Ciutadans, who was the clear winner.

Just days later she suffered the same fate in another debate, this time with Esquerra candidate Raül Romeva, who speaks several languages.

Her deputy stood in for Rovira in Thursday’s debate as she was elsewhere. The next day she cancelled a press conference, claiming to be unwell, although she recovered sufficiently to speak at a party rally the same evening.

The secessionist camp is not quite the united front it was. Its deposed president and erstwhile leader, Carles Puigdemont, currently in self-imposed exile in Brussels, shows no sign of contrition for a campaign that virtually everyone agrees has led to deep divisions in Catalan society.

Meanwhile, Junqueras, his rival for the presidency, has renounced unilateralism as an “error” and is seeking dialogue with Madrid instead. However, according to Rovira: “There never was a unilateral way, that was something invented by the Spanish state.” Eyebrows were also raised when she claimed that on the eve of UDI Madrid told the Catalan government there would be “blood on the streets, real bullets and not just rubber ones” if they did not desist. This was denied by the interlocutors at the time, the archbishop of Barcelona among them, and Rovira has never been able to substantiate the claim.

Carles Puigdemont attends a pro-independence demonstration in Brussels.
Carles Puigdemont attends a pro-independence demonstration in Brussels. Photograph: Riccardo Pareggiani/AFP/Getty Images

Her party, the ERC, is one of the oldest in Catalonia. It was founded in 1931 and the following year the Spanish republic accepted the Catalan statute of autonomy. The party was declared illegal after the fascist victory in 1939 and in 1940 its leader Lluís Companys was executed by firing squad.

In recent years its leftwing credentials have suffered after it formed alliances with the centre-right nationalists led by Artur Mas and now Puigdemont, and over the past five years the national question has taken prominence over social issues. The first 12 pages of its manifesto are devoted to the question of sovereignty before going on to call for the “increased productivity and competitiveness of the Catalan economy”.

If social issues are taking a back seat it is largely because secessionists, including many ERC members, argue that until Catalonia is independent there is no point in pushing for social change because Madrid simply uses the courts to overrule the Catalan parliament when it makes decisions that are not to its liking.

“Catalonia voted to guarantee that the poorest families wouldn’t have to go without heat and electricity and the constitutional court overruled it,” says Rosa Marcús, a schoolteacher in Sitges. “It approved imposing taxes on empty properties and turning them over to public housing and it was overruled. It voted to ban fracking and it was overruled, it banned bullfighting, the same thing happened. There’s a long list.”

“Can we really go on analysing politics from a left and right perspective?” asks Gemma Pauné Xuriguera, a Catalan civil servant. “I think it’s obsolete. Where would you place Ciutadans? Where would you place Putin? Things are complex and it’s not enough now to talk in terms of left and right.” Whether nominally left or right, the election is expected to produce an awkward and possibly unstable coalition of either secessionists or so-called constitutionalists – that is, everyone else.

When Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, imposed direct rule at the end of October and called the regional election, he said the aim was to restore normality in Catalonia. But there is little normal about an election in which the former president and vice-president are campaigning respectively from Brussels and prison.

One unintended outcome is that Catalonia may elect its first woman president. While Rovira is running in Junqueras’s stead, Elsa Artadi is fronting Puigdemont’s campaign in his absence, and Arrimadas is the Ciutadans candidate. The only man likely to become president is the socialist leader Miquel Iceta.

The only certainty is that, whatever the result, the independence issue will predominate and the Spanish government needs to stop deluding itself that it will fade away through a combination of persecution and exhaustion.

Junqueras said from prison that “we have to persist”, words echoed by Rovira who told a meeting in Tàrrega in central Catalonia: “We are living in dark times. If we don’t win on December 21 they will sweep us away. We have to win to continue building the republic and ratifying the mandate of the October 1 referendum.”


Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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