Catalan elections – Which way forward for the struggle?

Socialisme revolucionari – ISA in Catalonia

For the third time in a bit more than five years, last Sunday (14/02) we have had elections in Catalonia. They were called after the Spanish state removed, yet again, the elected president of the Generalitat [Catalan regional government] as part of its persecution of the pro-independence movement. This relentless repression undermines even the limited democratic rights under the post-Francoist regime. But there will be no rest for the establishment after these latest elections, the results of which will make it more difficult to resolve the deep crisis of capitalism in Catalonia and the Spanish state, aggravated by the mishandling of the Covid pandemic and the sharp economic reality related to it.

Majority for ‘the Left’ and independence!

Two main positive outcomes stand out after these elections. First, the share of votes for what the mainstream media describe as ‘the Left’ was nearly 58%.. The right wing parties saw their overall vote drop from 50% in 2017 to 41%. The bourgeois ‘safe option’ the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC–PSOE) won 23%; the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left -ERC) gained 21.4%; the Podemos-led En Comú Podem (In Common We Can ECP) gathered 6.9%. Particularly encouraging was the result for the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (Popular Unity Candidacy CUP), the most to the left of these four parties, which combines support for independence with a left perspective. Although not matching the 8% it gained in 2015, it increased its vote by half from 2017 to reach 6.7%. These four parties gained a total of 58%, the highest such vote since the 1930s. 

Second, for the first time ever, the pro-independence parties have won over 51% of the votes. This is a legitimacy milestone for the claim of independence, as the lack of a majority has been continuously used against the movement in recent years. It also reflects the ongoing mass support for independence, despite the movement’s 2017 setback and lack of political leadership.

At the same time, this result comes on the back of a historically low turnout of only 53%. This was, of course, partly due to the fear of Covid, which is why all parties apart from PSC wanted to postpone elections in the hope that a higher turnout would enhance their  polling fortunes. The second reason, though, was a certain lack of enthusiasm for the rather uninspiring electoral programs, both in relation to the struggle for independence and the proposals to combat the dire socio-economic impact of the COVID and economic crises. This is in marked contrast to the highest ever voter turnout of 79% back in December 2017, when the movement was still at a height.

The biggest gains were made by PSC, which saw its vote increase by 65% since 2017 score. That mainly came from the return of its traditional base, mainly older people from the industrial belt of Barcelona, but also from the liberal-centrist, ‘pro-European’ wing of the collapsing Citizens Party (Ciudadanos – Cs). The latter’s electorate seems to have fractured between PSC and the far-right Vox – a reflection of the political polarisation already witnessed in the 2019 Spanish state-wide elections as well as a sign of the instability of new formations, which Podemos should perhaps take note of.

Fundamentally, PSC came first in these elections mostly because it was seen as the safest bet by moderate unionist voters, who perhaps feel the right wing Vox, Cs and Partit Popular de Catalunya (People’s Party – PP) are too right-wing and antagonistic in the present situation. 

Outside of the electoral campaign rhetoric, ERC and PSC have been attempting to de-escalate the struggle for independence as part of their agreements in the state-wide parliament, including some softening from both sides on the question of political prisoners. But the contradictions in the process will likely prove too much, not least the relatively independent role of the Spanish state apparatus and its repressive and reactionary nature. Thus, a so-called ‘government of the left’ uniting the ERC and PSC is mathematically possible, although not likely politically, given how these parties’ electoral bases have been split on the dominant question of Catalan politics in recent years: the struggle for independence.

While ERC and CUP support the struggle for independence, PSC-PSOE and the Podemos-led ECP call for a ‘constitutional road’ towards, in some distant future, a federal system across the Spanish state. Indeed, before the election ERC pledged it would not form a government coalition with any of the anti-independence parties.

The new government is likely to consist of ERC in coalition with the right-wing pro-independence Junts per Catalunya (Junts – JxCat), led by Carles Puigdemont and which gained 20% in the election. As this block is 5 seats short of a majority, it could also include CUP with its 9 seats, although CUP may decide not to join, but support it from outside, as it has done since 2015.    

By and large, this will effectively be a continuation of the current government, but now with ERC as the senior partner. This is the same government that since the mass movement of 2017 has failed to provide any clear vision and fighting strategy for the pursuit of independence. It’s the same government that has poorly managed the pandemic and its economic repercussions, with little support given to ordinary working people who have lost their jobs.

More fundamentally, both ERC and, even more so, JxCat stand for a very different kind of independence than the one CUP and the rest of the anti-capitalist left calls, or should call, for. Despite the ‘radical’ or ‘left’ image it may bring forward at the height of the struggle, ERC has shown in the past, particularly in the last years of participation in government, that its loyalty fundamentally rests on the side of capital. During the Nissan strike last year, for example, the ERC leaders failed to give any support to the workers’ call for nationalisation. The Catalan republic envisaged by the likes of ERC is still a capitalist republic.

While CUP is raising broadly correct demands for left-wing measures to combat the effects of the pandemic and a fighting strategy for self-determination, it should do so in opposition to, rather than by joining a government with pro-capitalist parties. It was a mistake, in the run up to the events of 2017, for CUP to tail-end these parties, at a time when there was a significant merging of the social and national questions, as reflected in CUP’s good result in the 2015 election. At that point, a united left with a programme for a socialist Catalonia coupled with support for an independence referendum could have been a lighting rod for workers across catalonia and the spanish state. Instead, following protracted negotiations, CUP tied its fate with the coalition between ERC and the Catalan right. This isolated them from section workers that were not convinced by a campaign led by pro-capitalist forces could bring change, while ECP’s alignment with the side of unionist parties against the referendum put them on the side of the spanish state and against independence isolated them from workers who saw the possibility of an independent catalonia bringing social change. After the 2017 elections, CUP continued to lend parliamentary support to the ERC-JxCat coalition.

But it would be a much more consequential mistake to actually join them in government. It would mean a severe loss of credibility for the main party organisation of the anti-capitalist left in Catalonia today. Left parties should not try to manage capitalism just to prove they are “prepared to govern” but provide an independent voice for the working class and its allies. This is precisely why we opposed Unidas Podemos entering officially the PSOE state government, as in the long term it risks tying Podemos further and further to the establishment and weakening its links to the struggles on the street.

At the same time, Podemos spokespeople have previously questioned the quality of Spanish ‘democracy’ and faced strong criticism from their coalition partners and hysteria from the right and their press. Most recently, Podemos have correctly refused to condemn the developing mass movement amongst the youth in support of Pablo Hasel. This is an indication of how movements on the street can pressurise Podemos and create divisions in the coalition government.

ECP’s mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, is a case in point. The leader of the powerful anti-evictions movement during the last crisis, Colau has not been able to stop the continuation of evictions and of the wider housing crisis since becoming mayor in 2015. This kind of compromise by the main political representatives of the Indignados generation has already led to increasing cynicism towards the idea of party organisation among the new generation of activists.

Therefore, while we support any attempt to win reforms for the working classes, the anti-capitalist left must link this to the need for the revolutionary socialist transformation of society as its fundamental goal. If this basic lesson is not learnt, then the anti-capitalist left ends, at best, fuelling the anti-party mood among the youth and, at worst, leaving the door open for the far right to capitalise on the anti-establishment anger and grow even more. CUP should build a mass left alternative on the ground and use its elected positions to be a voice of the struggle in the streets and fight for socialist policies.

Collapse of the ‘mainstream’ right and rise of Vox

Another positive feature of these elections has been the collapse of the ‘mainstream’ parties of the Spanish right, PP (3.8%) and Cs (5.6%), but also of the historical party of Catalan bourgeoisie, Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català (Catalan European Democratic Party, formerly Convergencia PdCAT), which didn’t even make it into the parliament. The former two have seen many of their voters radicalised and thus migrating to the far-right party Vox (7.7%), which has entered the Catalan Parliament for the first time ever – the most worrying outcome of these elections.

The third political force in the Spanish state and the fourth in Catalonia, Vox employs a nationalist, xenophobic, anti-leftist and populist discourse to appeal to people disillusioned with the mainstream parties of the right. As with most parties of this character, their main social base draws upon the disaffected middle classes as well as the reactionary elements in the state apparatus. As small businesses are closing down or barely coping due to the pandemic-related restrictions, with little support from either central or regional governments, and in the future Vox could  widen its base to include a layer of the working class who have been pushed to despair by the crisis. There is therefore potential for Vox to grow if the left fails to build a credible alternative.

To prevent that growth, the left should raise demands that also appeal to these social categories. At the same time, it needs to build a united front approach on the streets, in the workplaces, in schools and universities in order to counter Vox and the assorted fascistic grouplets bandwagoning on its electoral success and becoming more emboldened by it.

We could see a rise in attacks on the usual targets of the far right: immigrants, trade unions, left organisations, anti-fascist activists etc. But they can be dealt with if the rich anti-fascist traditions in Catalonia are fully mobilized to meet them head on, not just in the street but with a clear socialist alternative that tackles the socio-economic conditions that drive the growth of the far right. Although Vox has grown and them entering the Parliament is a negative development, the balance of forces is still on our side.

The radicalisation of a section of the right-wing electorate can also be seen on the Catalan right. Its leading party, JxCat, has been displaying increasing right populist tendencies in the recent period, particularly by doubling down on their anti-Spanish chauvinism. This is of course mostly a substitute for having a real programme, for providing any effective path to actual independence, despite their bombastic claims to the contrary. The main danger here that needs to be combated is the anti-Catalan or anti-Spanish sentiments that can grow in sections of the working class in Catalonia and the rest of the Spanish state, and which can be an obstacle for the working class unity necessary to combat the repressive 1978 regime.

The way forward for the left: building an anti-capitalist pole of attraction

These elections will not bring the period of calm and stability that the capitalist establishment is hoping for. The pandemic and the socio-economic crisis linked to it will continue. As the 51% symbolic milestone has been reached for the first time ever, the aspirations of the masses for self-determination will not go away. Nor will the repression of the Spanish state and its allies in the Catalan apparatus, as seen over the past days with the case of the rapper Pablo Hasel and the police brutality against the youth protesting his unjust imprisonment.

The new government will continue to be part of, and not the solution to these problems. The solution can only come from below and CUP is well positioned to help organise the resistance, both in the institutions and on the streets. While part of its leadership seems keen to participate in government alongside pro-capitalist parties, the rank-and-file should resist that kind of compromise and build unity in action with activists from ECP and other left organisations.

Rather than pursuing a government together with capitalist parties, CUP should provide a real opposition from the left on the basis of a programme of concrete demands for a decent income, affordable housing for all (including a stop to evictions), well-funded public services (healthcare and education in particular), amnesty for all political prisoners, rights for ‘illegal’ workers etc. In that respect, CUP should use its numerous public positions not only to criticise the establishment but to help organising and building mass movements in order to win those demands.

 The next period will likely bring important social upheavals and movements, with new layers moving into struggle as the contradictions in society continue to play out. There will be many opportunities as well as complications and a clear united anti-capitalist left is necessary to deal with both. 

The solidarity shown throughout the Spanish state with the fight against the Francoist persecution of Pablo Hassel shows once more the basis for building a united revolutionary pole of attraction that would draw in trade unions, social movements, youth organisations, activist networks and other left groups, which could develop into a movement to break with capitalism and fight for an independent Catalan socialist republic.

Socialisme Revolucionari is working to further such a struggle, and at the same time striving to organise activists around a revolutionary socialist programme necessary to bring the fight for democratic and national rights in Catalonia together with the struggle against capitalism, linked to the broader perspective of internationalist revolutionary socialist transformation that goes beyond Catalonia, across the Spanish state and beyond. 

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