On 1st October, police shipped in from all over Spain by the countries ruling ‘Popular Party’ led by Mariano Rajoy, violently repressed the Catalonian referendum on Independence from Spain. The country has been gripped by a constitutional crisis leading up to Sundays events. When the independence referendum was announced in early September the conservative Spanish government were determined that it would not proceed.
Since then we have seen the arrests of fourteen high level Catalan officials including the regional economy minister Josep Maria Jove who is now being investigated for sedition. In addition to this, there have been a series of police raids on newspapers, printers, delivery services and government offices, with authorities confiscating 1.5 million leaflets and 10 million ballot papers. Meanwhile public prosecutors issued arrest warrants to more than 700 mayors, cooperating with the preparations for the referendum.
This is scary to see in Spain. Especially as the black cloud of the formerly Nazi backed Franco regime, which was only fully dissolved in 1975, still hangs over the country. Indeed, the Guardia Civil referred to ironically in English as the ‘civil police’ acted as Franco’s paramilitary force during the 39-75 fascist dictatorship. Those along with the federal police force have been filmed attacking voters with tear gas, batons and rubber bullets. On Sunday, peaceful citizens were dragged by their hair from ballot stations and had their fingers broken by the bully like police. Far from the spirit of the public services working together to protect citizens, the police even went as far to attack the firefighters who were trying to shield the protesters from this kind of state sanctioned barbarity.
In this blog post I would like to examine what has caused this violence to take place, look at the various biases surrounding the referendum from a UK perspective and look to the future of Spain and Catalonia to see where they are headed next in their political struggles.
Corruption and Austerity
Rajoy is not a stupid man. In opposing the Catalan independence referendum so violently he has been able to use what is seen as the image of the Spanish state in securing and upholding support for the his government and the Popular Party.
Since Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, it has been embroiled in corruption scandals, which have caused many to lose faith in the Spanish government. Almost 1,500 people faced trial for corruption in Spain between 2015 and the end of 2016. About 70 percent of them were found guilty. Rajoy was recently forced to deny any knowledge of illegal financing of the Popular Party in a high profile court case involving party members allegedly granting public contracts in exchange for cash or other gifts. While Rajoy himself was not implicated, he is the first sitting Prime Minister to have to appear as a witness in a Spanish court.
Another problem facing Spain is the social crisis which can be seen with increasing unemployment and inequality, which primarily effects the younger generations. A good way I like to describe the Popular Party is Spain’s version of the UK Conservative Party. Throughout their time in power, the PP have made massive cuts in education while handing out bailouts to a Spanish bank called Bankia. Youth unemployment in Spain is over 50% with general unemployment above 25%. It is this that led to the Indignados protests, these were peaceful sit-ins organised by the youth of Spain. Yet they were met with the same police response to the Catalonia referendum: violence and intimidation.
Faced with these problems and their repercussions the Spanish government must use an inherently nationalist based response. A cry to make Catalonia independent or to get rid of the Popular Party is a cry against Spain. It is this mind-set which leads to violence such as that we saw on Sunday being seen as justified.
In 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled against the new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia. The Catalan Statute had been the result of negotiations between Zapertos centre left government in Madrid and the regional government in Barcelona. Prior to this ruling support for independence in Catalonia had been historically divided, but after many of those in favour of greater autonomy were immediately converted to independence supporters. This opened up a new dynamic in Spanish politics.
As a result, Rajoy has tried to combine the interests of the Spanish state with the political strategy of the Popular Party. He has been able to use the crisis to try and win back legitimacy for the PP after its corruption scandals. It has taken on the role of defender of Spain and the constitution. It is a strategy which has gained support. While voters were being dragged from polling booths and beat up by police, supporters of the government gathered in Madrid to support the state violence, sing Falangist songs from the Franco dictatorship era and strut around making Nazi Salutes. They have constructed a theory of constitutional nationalism which serves them, and the centre right party Ciudadnos, but which made confrontation between the forces of public order and the public order inevitable.
The pinnacle moment of this Nationalism came with the decision of the unelected King Felipe of Spain to make a speech. In an atmosphere of rising criticism of his silence, Felipe finally decided not to condemn the violence and fascism but to accuse the democratically elected government of Catalonia of being ‘undemocratic’ for giving the Catalonian people a democratic vote on independence. The hypocrisy of the man is stunning, he knows well that he is only there because his father was appointed by Franco in 1975. He did not address the violence at all and instead reiterated the same nationalist talking points that could have been written by the right wing government in Madrid.
After the events of October 1st 2017, it is not just people old enough to remember the Franco era recognise extreme right Spanish Nationalism for what it is, the whole world has seen the democracy hating brutality of Spanish nationalism.
What Next for Spain?
In a matter of days we can expect the Catlan government to declare independence from Spain. What the pro-independence forces in Spain and Catalonia have achieved is to lessen the impact of the state and the intensity of nationalism. The problem is that independence cannot take place if the rest of Spain refuses to accept it as official or legal. Only by realising how the social and ecomic problems are linked to the nationalism can independence begin to progress.
We can rely on some resistance from socialist party: Podemos in the Spanish parliament, but even if they manage to convince the centre left PSOE to support their cause they are still far from holding any considerable sway in the Spanish government. If you want to change the Spanish constitution, you need more than 66 percent of the deputies in the parliament. Podemos are a very long way from that.
We began to see some hope with the general strike currently enveloping Catalonia. It was supported by the trade unions, all the pro-independence parties, and other left wing groups such as Podemos’ regional affiliate and Barcelona en Comu’. There was a very widespread stoppage as a result: almost everything closed from small shops to public institutions and transport. In Barcelona and beyond. On the one hand the strike opposed this weekend’s repression, but it also had many republican themes, with people hoping that a Catalan republic will be declared soon.
What the declaration will achieve is to put it on the table, helping to open up negotiations with Catalan, Spanish and International representatives. At the same time, the Catalan government will try to act as independent encouraging the Catalonians to pay taxes to it. The Spanish state are likely to respond in a hostile manner however. They may even try to use article 155 of the Spanish constitution to definitively end Catalonian Autonomy and arrest the Catalan President. If that happens the streets will rise up, and the government will have a major confrontation on their hands. The Independence movement has many people ready to be active in this campaign over a long period – it will be difficult for the Spanish state to resist a movement of that size.
If the scenario develops in this way, the political parties will have to adopt positions to meet it. The Spanish state does not want to negotiate – so centrism does not have a place. You cannot meet repression the like of which we have seen with moderation, the people will not support it. In the last five years, the PP government has not come forward with any offer to resolve the situation and I do not think that will change. The movement has already moved to the left – the protest and striking is a great example of that. The streets have an idea of something new in Catalonia, something bottom up.