Every now and then reality prevails and presently some are starting to make a move in Spanish and Catalan politics. Following the PSOE’s failure to enter into a coalition with Unidas Podemos after the April elections in Spain, both parties have understood that a left-leaning government that won’t demonise Catalonia’s independence movement is the only lifeline left for PM Pedro Sánchez and Podemos. This would allow Pedro Sánchez to boost his own leadership and thwart a right-wing government under the growing influence of Vox, the Spanish far-right’s rising star. Following in the footsteps of France’s National Front and Italy’s Lega Nord (Northern League), Vox undermines the hitherto generally accepted democratic values and its extreme policies eventually permeate the rest of the right on key issues such as gender-based violence, immigration and welfare.
With Vox luring the PP and Ciudadanos towards their extreme position and the old PSOE and UCD guard —the old glories of Spain’s constituent parliament after Franco’s death— roaring against Pedro Sánchez with their archaic centralist views, the PSOE negotiators have swapped their “sectarian crisis” rhetoric on Catalonia for the notion that the conflict is “essentially” political, thus facilitating a dialogue with ERC.
It is now that the word “dialogue” —a wildcard of sorts— requires a definition and all three parties will have to give it content. A compromise will be needed and political leaders whose earlier actions were driven more by haste than responsibility will have to muster some courage and explain that.
Unlike Pedro Sánchez, ERC are in no hurry, as they manoeuvre on marshy terrain and will not move nearly as fast as the socialist leader would hope for. Few within ERC are confident that the talks that have begun will yield a positive result and modulating their discourse will require time and proof of mutual trust, which is nowhere to be seen at present. Above all, ERC’s leadership want to avoid any bumps on their way to the party conference slated for December 21, when the rank-and-file will have a say on the Catalan party’s new “pragmatic” strategy and they will consolidate their leadership for the coming years. With Junqueras’ blessing, VP Pere Aragonès will steer ERC into a new political era where ERC is hoping to take the central space in the pro-independence political spectrum whilst keeping a watchful eye on frenemy JxCat. The new ERC leaders know that their coalition partner, led by Carles Puigdemont, are looking forward to getting even after the exiled Catalan president was forced to declare independence on October 27, 2017, which they knew was a dead-end but left themselves no choice after they were unable to collectively accept the president’s initial decision to call a snap election. ERC were unable to accept that and neither was the Catalan president’s innermost circle.
Some day, with the hindsight provided by the passage of time, we will be able to gauge the weight of social media in the decision-making process by all the political parties in these years and how agitprop has impacted and debased auctoritas. It happened at the end of October 2017 and it is happening again now. This week president Quim Torra tweeted his misgivings about the strategy of dialogue with the PSOE and Podemos. In his message, he advised “listening carefully” to Paul Engler’s reflections, when the author of This Is An Uprising said to Vicent Partal that “if Catalans wish to prevail, they must aim for much greater polarisation and escalation, as well as accept high levels of sacrifice”. Engler admits that if positions become more polarised, “others will oppose your cause ever more” and his book concludes that “the early Christians used to say that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. Dying as a martyr is inherent to a winning movement. It’s not something you want to happen, but it’s inevitable once you’ve raised the stakes”.
Polarisation might help to raise the price of negotiation, but you cannot neglect the impact it will have on those who oppose independence and the sacrifices it will ask of those who support it. So far, independence supporters have argued for a painless, magical process. Today’s interpretation of the 2017 independence bid is diverse across the main political parties, but not so in their political leadership. While ERC has decided to take a step towards negotiation, Quim Torra —a leader who behaves more like an activist than a president— keeps pushing himself into a corner, thus facilitating the PSOE’s efforts to rule him out as an interlocutor. His ministers and the political space they represent are preparing for the day after, once the president has been barred from office [following a presumably guilty verdict in his trial for disobedience] and JxCat is in need of a new leader for the future.