Contributed by Joe Montero
Yesterday our time, Catalonia’s regional president Carles Puigdemont declared the intention to work for a negotiated road to independence, claiming a clear mandate from the overwhelming result of the yes vote at the referendum last week.
Despite a massive and brutal police crackdown to prevent the voting, 43 percent of those entitled to cast a ballot with 90 percent voting to break with Spain. This does not include the more than 750,000 ballot seized by the Civil Guard and National Police.
Spain’s national government, led by Mariano Rajoy has refused to recognise the vote, will not talk and is threatening more police action, arrests and the taking away of the limited autonomy that exists.
Catalonia’s quest to break away from Spain is rooted in its history and has been building a new momentum in recent years. In part this is fueled by a worsening economic climate, augmented by the perception that Madrid is not prepared to even make a show of listening.
Another critical factor, is the demise in the standing of the traditional major parties. There is a palpable need for change across the whole of Spain and this includes Catalonia. While this is creating a climate for the rise of new politics, it is also driving the traditional parties into increasingly desperate measures to bolster their own positions, by doing all they can, to maintain the old order. The result is a kind of political bipartisanship that allows the Popular Party (sometimes also translated as the Peoples Party) to maintain a minority government, with de facto backing form the Socialist Party.
In the process, these two parties are sliding backwards, towards the political methods of the Francisco Franco dictatorship that came to an end in the 1970’s. It relied on the iron fist to imposer its power. The current political elite are shifting towards the same method to impose theirs. This mindset lies behind the support of the Socialist Party for the heavy handed crackdown on the day of the referendum vote. It is supporting Madrid’s refusal to talk and declared that it would support Rajoy’s threats to escalate intervention, if there is no back down from the move to independence.
Part of the package has been to raise the spectre of Spanish chauvinism,which hides behind the legalisms of a system embedded this and was designed by the Franco government to prevent any change.By doing this, Spain’s political elite is playing with fire and this could bring about profound change to the nation’s political landscape.
A worrying consequence is that this has breathed new life into the the self declared fascists of the pro-Franco Falangists, which has been playing a key role in the pro-Spain street rallies of the last couple of weeks.
It is under these conditions that Puigdemont has pulled back from the brink and not declared immediate and unilateral independence. This has been shelved for a few weeks, to allow some space and time for talks with Madrid and the European Union. At the same time, he made it clear that this would be a road towards independence and that the declaration of independence singed by Catalan parliamentarians, would be enacted within weeks.
“Thanks to the results of the referendum of 1 October, Catalonia has earned the right to be an independent state,” he said, adding that “If everybody acts responsibly, this conflict can be resolved calmly. It won’t be us that prevents that from happening.”
“I ask the citizens of Catalonia to continue to express themselves in a civilised, peaceful way, the parties to contribute with their words to lessen the tension and the Spanish government to renounce its repressive tactics,” he added.
Perhaps it is hoped that this will generate some rift in the bipartisanship in Madrid. So far, there is no sign that this is happening.
But the strategy could give the Madrid elite a major headache, in that Barcelona is looking as the side that wishes to resolve the situation by peaceful means, while they look like the ones who are itching for a confrontation, whatever the cost. This is the major strength of the strategy, which by all accounts, is directed to increase international support and lead to the involvement of an independent mediator.
Rajoy’s immediate response has been to refuse to enter any form of dialogue, oppose mediation and to threaten to act with an iron fist, unless there is a total back down.
Sections of the Catalan independence movement do not approve of Puigdemont’s strategy. To them this is already a back down and hold that there is no point in negotiating with Madrid, when the y have made it perfectly clear that they won’t negotiate. This position is articulated by the smaller Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) and Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). They want an immediate declaration of independence.
Puigdemont’s Catalan European Democratic Party (PEdCAT) and its Together for Yes (Junts pel Sí) alliance needs the support of these two parties to form the regional government and therefore remains under intense pressure form this flank. The ERC is in the alliance and the CUP, while remaining outside it has to date supported its forming a government.
The political initiative is not just in the hands of politicians and a large part of the political momentum is being driven in the streets, as millions participate in ongoing rallies and marches. Last week, unions held a general strike. At the time of Puigdemont’s announcement, a huge crowd had gathered to protect the Catalan parliament from from attack by Madrid’s paramilitary forces. The Catalan regional police were ready to join in the defence as well.
This movement from below cannot be dismissed and it will not go away. The iron fist approach is much more likely to strengthen its resolve than impose obedience. This is something that the political elite in Madrid seems to fail to understand. It is their major weakness.
Another weakness rises out of the possibility that the call for talks will improve the chances of an international push for mediation. When one side is seen of offer conciliation, it looks bad for the other side to knock it back unilaterally. Once again, Mariano Rajoy looks like the bully. He has already flatly refused to accept any form of conciliation or the involvement of an international mediator. The transparent unwillingness to listen, talk and preference to use violence will continue to damage the elite’s claim to be the defenders of democracy and defenders of the 17 regions, some of which, like Catalonia also want to break the chains of Madrid.
Still another weakness is that Rajoy has already declared his hand and may have left himself very little wiggle room and this means that he has locked himself and his government into a course of action that it will be very difficult to get out of, without a major loss of face. For him, it has become an all or nothing game and only a the complete surrender of Catalonia will be good enough.
The trouble with this is that it is not going to happen.
This has become an eyeball to eyeball contest, waiting to see who is going to be the first one to blink.
Support from the political elite might keep Rajoy and his government in place for now. But a crackdown will have repercussions throughout Spain that will further isolate the political elite form the population and provide a new opportunity for the emerging new political forces.
Puigdemont’s strategy is also risky. It may not generate international support and may not lead to any talks. The declaration of independence must be either enacted an some point in the near future or abandoned. It’s declaration, when Madrid is not prepared to offer a centimetre of ground, has a very good chance of escalating the conflict and raising the level of violence.
Meanwhile, Rajoy has called another emergency cabinet meeting, out of which is expected to come a warning to fall into line, or else. This has now occurred and Catalonia has been given eight days to drop the bid for independence.
Intervention and the use of overwhelming force might crush the drive for independence in the short-term. It will also make history and the most potent part of it is that it will it will become a symbol that strengthens the resolve to break away, rather than forced submission.