Contributed by Joe Montero
The political crisis in Spain’s semi-autonomous Catalonia continues to roll out on in a very predictable way.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his government continue to play the hard line rejection that has been in play since the 1 October independence referendum, which itself is a continuation of the no compromise, no talk stance that has been in play for years.
It is this clear, in your face, refusal to even contemplate listening to Catalan aspirations that that set the conditions for the referendum and the stand off.
After an eventful week that involved threats and arrests at the hands of Madrid, the Catalan regional parliament voted to declare independence last Friday. It was given no other choice but complete surrender. Incredibly, Rajoy and his team seem to have expected total surrender, so they could declare complete victory and rewrite themselves as the saviours of Spanish unity.
Catalan president Carles Puigdemont had made it clear that although there was a clear call for talk and trying to work out the situation reasonably, the goal was always going to be to move towards independence.
When Rajoy threatened to move in a takeover,
the counter was to call a new election, while when movement is at its peak, organised and mobilised.
Rajoy’s response was immediate and on the next day, sacked the Catalan President, dissolve the regional parliament, take over administration, the public television station. The Catalan parliament was already primed to call a new election and take advantage of the surge of support. In a counter move Rajoy called his own new election for the regional parliament for 21 December.
In a pre-recorded public television address on Saturday, Puigdemont condemned the takeover as an attack on sovereignty and promised to “work to build a free country”.
With the latest move, Rajoy may have seriously underestimated the commitment of the other side. A hallmark of the political style to date has been making the moves on the run, responding to developments, rather than operating on a well worked out strategy and relying on the simplistic theme that Spain shall remain as before, and it says so in the constitution.
By contrast, the strategy of the Independence movement has been skilful in comparison. At each step to date, It has managed to drive Madrid into acting, in ways where it comes out looking like the bully and the independence movement has been able to gain political capital
Baring dirty tricks, it is hard to see how Rajoy is going to come out on top with this strategy. The timing of the election is not good for Madrid, barring some dirty tricks. Given the track record and what is at stake, dirty tricks are on the cards. Certain political parties could even be banned.
The immediate reaction of the Catalans, is a debate on whether this election should be boycotted or participated in. Whichever way this eventuates, Madrid could still be in big trouble. All stops are being pulled out to make the bet of the situation.
If dirty tricks are applied, it may not be possible to hide the fact, and this could seriously backfire and take the stand off to a new level.
Although the pro-independence movement has some formidable strengths, the various political trends within it are more united than they have ever been before, it has solid widespread support on the ground and are winning the argument across Spain and world attention is focused on what is going on in Catalonia, there remain significant weaknesses.
The European Union is missing in action and some leaders have sided with Rajoy, in the fear that the Catalan example might lift movement in their own country that the do not want to see. The Catalans do not have the means to defend themselves against a physical attack form Madrid and if it boils down to a show of force, Spain will maintain its control, at least for the time being.
Across Spain and in Catalonia itself, there is a substantial base of opposition to Catalan nationhood, which is rooted in a history of oppression of the regions and deeply set colonial mentality. Nowhere is this more strongly rooted than within the wealthiest section of society that maintains its connection with the aristocracy, the major corporations and has roots in the Franco dictatorship.
The crisis has for the first time provided a platform for the openly fascist Falangist movement to come out of the woodwork and lead public demonstrations in opposition to Catalan independence. Some of the Falangists are attached to the ruling Popular Party, which for its own part, emerged from the creation of Franco government ministers.
There is also that section of Spanish society that has grown over the years to fear that the “separatists” . It still has some traction, including within the substantial immigrant population in Catalonia, who had gone there in search of work and have been led to believe over the years that the “separatists” want to take their jobs and homes and kick them out.
Many of these people are traditional supporters of the Socialist Party, which is backing Rajoy’s hard line response. It goes even further. Without this bipartisanship, Rajoy would have had to other choice but to start talking.
It is quite logical that only hours ago, leaders of the Socialist Party rubbed shoulder with leaders of business Cuidadanos (Citizens), which is directly tied to important sections of big business, and joined with the Falangists, in what has been the biggest pro Spain rally to date., even if it attracted nowhere near the numbers supporters of independence that have been hitting the streets in recent weeks.
The best answer as to why this is the case, besides its historical antipathy to any idea of independence, is that the Socialist Party has embarked on a broader political strategy to maintain the Popular Party that Rajoy leads in office as a minority government at all costs.
It does this by abstaining as a block, from critical votes in parliament.
At the time the confrontation with the Catalans is taking place, some 200 individuals tied up with the government and the Popular Party are facing trials for corruption. The web extends into the Socialist Party as well. This has the making of a different political crisis. The heavy-handed approach to Catalonia has provided the means to sweep it under the carpet. Much of the big media in and outside Spain has been complicit in this cover up.
The Socialist Party doesn’t want to face a national election either. Its public standing is low, and it has been bleeding its support base to newcomer Podemos.
Catalonia is being a problem for Podemos as well. Opinion on what position to take is divided within its own ranks. An important factor is that its own support base is from the ranks that the Socialist Party derives its support. Many Podemos activists have participated with the independence movement, but the leadership has been wary of alienating a section of its supporters. Thus, the official position is that the people have a right to decide their own future, without coming out and directly supporting independence. It appears to be sitting on the fence and this is not a good place for a party that is supposed to be all about change to be.
For the pro-independence Catalan forces, greatest challenge is to build stronger ties to the Spanish population within the region, win hearts and minds and re-assure them that they are not as threat and be welcomed as participants in building the future together. In doing this it needs to counter the special role being played by the Socialist Party and find the means to contribute to removing it at the principle prop of an unpopular government.
Whichever way it goes in the days and months ahead, a new and important page is being written in Catalonia’s history and at the very least, it is certain that it will add to the aspiration of the Catalans to be their own masters. This will not die. It ensures that the quest for nationhood will continue.