Defend democracy in Spain and Catalonia

Defend democracy in Spain and Catalonia

By KD Tait

THE SPANISH government’s use of force to disrupt the Catalan independence referendum left nearly 900 people injured at the hands of the police and precipitated the country’s most serious constitutional crisis since the restoration of democracy in 1978. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the governing Partido Popular (PP) had the insolence to claim that, “the state responded with firmness and serenity.” 

Video of the paramilitary guardia civil smashing their way into polling stations to carry off ballot boxes, beating voters and shooting rubber bullets into crowds depict the most serious and open attack on democracy in the European Union for several decades. On October 3 700, 000 people demonstrated against Rajoy in Barcelona and all across in Catalonia protests blocked roads, streets and squares.

Rajoy’s hardline attitude has been buttressed by supportive statements from several European governments, with UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson asserting,

“The referendum is a matter for the Spanish government and people. We want to see Spanish law and the Spanish Constitution respected and the rule of law upheld.”

The EU itself, until now supportive of Rajoy’s attitude, has issued a statement that, while reiterating its support for the Spanish constitution, warning that an independent Catalonia would find itself outside the EU, appended an appeal for both sides to move “from confrontation to dialogue”. This perhaps is a coded warning to Madrid not to repeat the scenes which shocked citizens across Europe.

The Spanish constitution denies its national minorities the right to self-determination and therefore supporting the Spanish government’s efforts to uphold the rule of law means supporting its suppression of the overwhelming desire of Catalan residents for a democratic vote on their future relationship with Spain.

On October 3 King Felipe’s broadcast to the nation backed Rajoy to the hilt claiming the elected Catalan government and parliament  had placed itself “outside the law” and that those who participated in the referendum were “showing an inadmissible disloyalty towards the powers of the state.” He did not directly address his Catalan “subjects’ nor did he speak a word in Catalan.

Responsibility for the confrontation lies primarily with Rajoy’s government, which point blank refused to negotiate, refused to concede to overwhelming local demand for a referendum to settle the question and finally sent in 16,000 police with orders to suppress the vote.

Nevertheless, despite the violence and intimidation the vote went ahead. 2,262,424 votes were cast in the 75 to 90 per cent of polling stations that remained open. The election authorities claimed a 90 per cent margin in favour of independence on a turnout of between 42 and 50 per cent.

The sight of hundreds of thousands of people queuing to vote in polling stations protected by organised defence committees has been hailed as an inspirational exercise in popular sovereignty. This in itself was a major defeat for Rajoy. All defenders of democracy recognise the courage of people confronting the police to exercise their right to vote. But it is important to balance that against the democratic rights of a majority Catalonia’s population who do not want to be railroaded into independence.

It would of course be no surprise if Rajoy’s repression had changed the minority for independence into a majority but we cannot judge this this on the basis of current evidence. Therefore a unilateral and irrevocable declaration of independence by the parliamentary majority, let alone by Carles Puigdemont as President of the autonomous regional authority, would run the danger of splitting the population into those for and against complete independence. To do this when the central issue is resisting Rajoy’s assault on democracy would be a gift to Rajoy.

Of course since any sort of democratic polls will be obstructed, the people of Catalonia only have the general strike and mass demonstrations and assemblies with which to make their will known. This should be the response to attempts to arrest the government, dissolve the parliament or suspend the Statute of Autonomy.

Given the circumstances in which the referendum was organised and conducted, the result, whilst high, is not a qualitative change from the 40 to 45 per cent reputable opinion polls showed to be in favour of independence, and is clearly not a mandate for secession. Opponents of secession, and those who opposed the less-than-democratic fashion in which the referendum was organised simply stayed away.

What now

Carles Puigdemont, President of the Generalitat, the autonomous regional authority, has postponed his threat to declare independence 'within 48 hours', and on Monday instead appealed to the EU to organise international arbitration, insisting it “cannot look the other way any longer.” 

This apparent change of approach is almost certainly less a climbdown than part of a premeditated strategy. Puigdemont and Rajoy calculated the risks of their actions and judged that neither would actually force the issue beyond the point of no return.

That explains the fact that the police operation on Sunday, whilst incontestably brutal, was more about making a demonstration than actually suppressing the vote. The vast majority of the police remained confined to quarters, and the Spanish state made no serious effort to actually stop the vote going ahead.

Puigdemont and his party, the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT), themselves relatively recent and opportunist converts to complete Catalan separatism, would have known a referendum carried out in such conditions would not carry a clear majority mandate – but gambled that the inevitable police crackdown would confer immense moral legitimacy on the separatist leaders, undermining Rajoy, and partially compensate for their minority support even within Catalonia.

The events over the 48 hours since the poll seem to bear out both leaders’ calculations. But nevertheless, while fortunately nobody died, the actions of both sides – above all those of Mariano Rajoy - have ignited flames which it will prove very difficult to quench.

The relatively weak response of the organised working class on October 3 indicates that any unilateral declaration of independence, which Puigdemont insists will come in a few days, will not have the support of a majority of Catalans or of the working class of the province. On the other hand, since a sizable majority of Catalans clearly wanted to vote on the issue, further repression by Rajoy and the Guardia Civil could lead to an explosion.

Social Chauvinism

The first victim of the conflict between Spanish chauvinists and Catalan nationalists has been the working class across the peninsula. Had its leaders taken a clear and unequivocal position of support for the right to hold the referendum, Rajoy would have had to think twice before unleashing the guardia civil.

The referendum has been used by Rajoy to encourage visible manifestations of Spain’s reactionary past, as a storm of Spanish chauvinism sweeps across the country, with the national flag sprouting from balconies and windows and crowds cheering police departing for Catalonia. The inevitable consequence of this antagonism will be violence, not just against Catalans but against Spain’s other minorities, even foreign nationals.

Joining in this tide of chauvinism is the PSOE, the main party of Spanish social democracy, whose leader Pedro Sánchez, qualified his pleas for Rajoy to “negotiate, negotiate, negotiate” with an expression of craven loyalty to the undemocratic Spanish constitution, monarchy, and judiciary.

“I want to express the full support of the PSOE for Spain’s rule of law, its rules and its institutions, the support of the PSOE for the territorial integrity of this country that is now at risk. We are in a moment in which the general interest must prevail over the parties… it is the moment of reason, of common sense.”

Podemos’  usually voluble líder máximo, Pablo Iglesias, has been very restrained. Yes, he condemned police violence and said Rajoy had “shamed” Spaniards, but the populist party has limited opposition to purely parliamentary terms, appealing to the PSOE to form a coalition which would recognise the Catalans’ right to vote. Podemos MEP Miguel Urban, said “we need to unite to drive Rajoy out of power.” Yes indeed, but the kind of unity necessary does not start with parliamentary horse-trading with the cowards in the PSOE. It starts on the streets.

It is noteworthy too that whilst the Catalan sections of the CCOO and UGT union federations supported the October 3  strike, the national leaderships in Madrid did not.

If the reformist leaders of the all-Spanish labour movement, political parties and trade unions, do not  protest against Rajoy and support Catalan rights they will play into the hands of the nationalists of all stripes and further shatter the unity of the country’s workers. Unity has to start with a recognition that Rajoy’s attack on Catalan democracy is the thin end of the wedge for all workers; a countrywide coordination of the left and working class is needed to mobilise on the streets to put a halt to the spiral of violence and national chauvinism.

Right to self determination

There is no doubt a large majority of Catalans wanted to vote in a legal and binding referendum – even if they were opposed to secession.

The democratic right to a vote should not be in the gift of the Madrid government or Spain’s High court. Of course the Spanish Constitution of 1978 does not contain this right. A whole series of concessions on democratic principles were the result of the infamous deal (the Moncloa Pact of 1977) which the reformist Communist and Socialist parties, made to the heirs of Franco. They included the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, which remains the symbol of a rotten system that needs to be swept away, if the democratic rights of the people are to be established across the whole of Spain. 

It violates both logic and democratic principles to suggest that a people can only vote on their own relationship with a state – if that state says so. The right of a nation to vote on whether to remain part of a multi-national state cannot depend on the consent of that state.

Equally, if this right were recognised, it would be necessary to negotiate on the consequences of a decision to secede; the borders, the rights of minorities, ownership of common resources, trade, etc., since these cannot be an ultimatum dictated by one side to another.

Counterintuitively, Rajoy’s heavy handed approach has done more to endanger the unity of the Spanish state than any leader since Franco’s death, and exposed the fraud of constitution and autonomy which does not accord the right to secede to Spain’s nations.


No poll has yet shown more than 41 per cent of Catalans willing to vote for secession. Had a legal and democratic referendum taken place, it would likely have gone against the separatists and settled the question.

A substantial part of the Catalan left and Catalan working class has always opposed separatism. Leftists in Catalonia are in no way obliged to support a unilateral declaration of independence as a result of the referendum vote. What they should demand is the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all the paramilitary and police forces of the Madrid government from Catalonia, since far from protecting the persons and rights of ordinary people they have violated them in the most disgusting manner. 

What is needed is unity of workers in the rest of Spain alongside their Catalan sisters and brothers in the face of Rajoy’s repression. Socialists need to demand the immediate withdrawal of all police and paramilitary units not under the control of the Catalan parliament. In Catalonia car workers, dockers, railworkers, should prepare their own self-defence organisations, linking up with the groups that defended the polls. Their aim should be defence of the working class communities and institutions as a whole irrespective of whether they support independence or not.

The main trade union federations represented in Catalonia—the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) and General Union of Workers (UGT) backed the call for Tuesday’s total stoppage across Catalonia, saying it went further than a “general strike” because it should involve “citizens, shop owners, the self-employed, businessmen, trade unions, taxi drivers and institutions”. Nevertheless reports indicate that support in the main industries and transport was very uneven.

Dockworkers closed the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona. In the Nissan car factory, 70 per cent were on strike, shutting down production. On the other hand Seat, the largest car manufacturer was working. This indicates that a declaration of independence by the petty bourgeois nationalist parties that have a majority in the Catalan Parliament would be an adventure, likely to split the working class and ultimately strengthen Rajoy.

In any case an effective general strike in Catalonia cannot limit itself to being a one-day protest or to providing a stage army for Puigdemont.  What is clear is that the workers’ movement does need to throw its full social weight into the scales of the struggle against Rajoy’s repression. A general strike should set itself two linked objectives; one to act as a rallying call for the labour movement across Spain to mobilise in defence of democracy and against Rajoy, and secondly to create the conditions within which the working class can seize the initiative from the nationalist adventurers whose dominance only fuels the rise of national hatreds and division.

The general strike is always, in its potential, a revolutionary act; one that “inevitably poses before all the classes in the nation the question: Who will be the master of the house?” If Rajoy is left as the master then there is no doubt that things will go hard not just for Catalans but for working people right across Spain. The history of the Catalan working class, and its importance in the Spanish economy, shows that a general strike, if it can unshackle itself from the separatists, has the potential to open a new, revolutionary situation across the country.

The trade unions in Catalonia should not restrict themselves to half-measures but call an all-out and indefinite general strike and create local councils of delegates to organise and lead it.

One of the strike’s objectives should include the call to convene elections for a sovereign Catalan constituent assembly. This could, after the fullest democratic debate, between opponents as well as supporters of independence, decide on and whether to proclaim an independent Catalan republic or launch a movement across the whole Spanish state for a state-wide constituent assembly.

The objective of such an assembly should be to purge of all the remnants of Francoism and with this the Bourbon monarchy, the Constitutional Court etc. Consistent democracy in Spain means the creation of a genuinely federal republic, with the right to secede of all or any of its peoples. In our view it is not in the interest of the working class to break Spain’s economic and political unity but to maintain it by any degree of coercion or constitutional fraud is far worse.

A united plurinational working class movement and party can, on the other hand, set itself the goal of fighting for a socialist republic which can solve the burning social problems facing Spain’s youth and working people today.

Across the rest of Spain and across the European Union socialist and labour parties, trade unionists and young people should take to the streets to demand:

Solidarity with the Catalans’ democratic right to determine their own futureRajoy hands off Catalonia! Withdraw all police and military units not loyal to the Catalan GeneralitatEU governments, condemn Rajoy’s repression and any further threats or attacks

If Rajoy suspends the Catalan Statute of Autonomy or arrests its government, European trade unions and rank and file workers should organise a boycott of transport and trade to Spain.

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