THE OBSERVER

Perplexed and outraged

We are nowhere near their “normality”, but the December polls should be seen as an opportunity

I have a colleague who writes for a prominent English language newspaper and used to be based in Madrid as a correspondent. He is familiar with the birth of Catalonia’s independence process as well as with what he refers to as Spain’s “old instincts”, and he has asked me if the pro-independence political parties will ever critically assess the outcome of their strategy. My answer is that self-criticism has mostly yet to come and that the magnitude of the Madrid’s brutality in its handling of the political situation will delay it, and might even postpone it eternally for some. The response from Spain’s judiciary and government, blinded by revenge, has always legitimised the strategic errors of the secessionist camp. Still, the mistakes are there and they should be aware of them when weighing their strength: the short-sighted tactical moves by some, the shoddy management of timing and the majorities obtained at the polls, plus the unfulfilled financial expectations and EU support for the independence cause. The Catalan Process anticipated a negotiation that has proven impossible. When group pressure gets in the way of self-criticism, it degrades politics and invites collective errors that are met with applause. Some of the main actors privately admit that independence was proclaimed when they got carried away by “overflowing emotion”. When you are short of political cohesion and you lead a bottom-up movement “the surge pulls you out into a scenario that you no longer control”.

Besides their own convictions, the separatist parties and people of all political persuasions can count on the Spanish government’s intransigence, the arbitrariness of the justice system and a militant public prosecutor to bring about ironclad unity to the secessionist camp. Catalonia’s collective spirit has taken a blow following the police crackdown on October 1, the full takeover of the Generalitat’s powers by invoking Article 155 [of the Spanish Constitution] —which has effectively turned the Catalan administration into a mere provincial branch run from Madrid—, the imprisonment of two peaceful activists (Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez) and half the Catalan government, not to mention the arrest warrants issued against the president and the rest of his cabinet, who remain in Brussels. The humiliation inflicted on Catalonia’s public representatives is also an insult to all the citizens who have defended our institutions and home rule for four decades. They are an all-embracing majority that extends well beyond the boundaries of independence support and are not constrained by their place of birth or the language that they predominantly speak, much to the dismay of the likes of Josep Borrell [1].

Today Spain is less democratic and more authoritarian than a month ago, as far as the world is concerned

Besides politics, street action was —and is— the only instrument available to the pro-independence bloc and October 1 showed us that the danger of violence is not theoretical. Carles Puigdemont’s decision to get the international community involved every step of the way and keep Europe focused on Catalonia —which was disconcerting initially— appears to stem from this realisation.
People in the know explain that Rajoy’s decision to limit Article 155 to a short time span and call an election immediately “was undoubtedly inspired by Europe” and several commentators have agreed that Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence was detrimental to the diplomatic sympathy fuelled by the peaceful nature of the movement, the financial reasons, the October 1 crackdown and the attitude of Spain’s diplomacy, which had no qualms denying any abuse of power when interviewed by no other than the BBC. If the current situation affects Catalonia’s image, it is even more detrimental to Spain as a brand name. The narrative of Spain’s political Transition, of a modern, democratic framework for peaceful coexistence and renewed economic growth, has been shattered before the eyes of Spain’s European partners and economic actors. Today Spain is less democratic and more authoritarian than a month ago, as far as the world is concerned.

Spanish government sources have privately admitted for months that a reform of the Constitution is unavoidable, but first they want to see a complete defeat of Catalonia’s pro-independence movement. Until quite recently, this was accompanied by some clichéd comment about how Catalans would curb their indignation at the eleventh hour. This political view stems from an interpretation of the willingness to compromise as a weakness that must be exploited and it accounts for Spain’s failed democratic quality as a country ruled by emotion rather than political opportunity. The arrest of the Catalan government is yet another game-changer. Spain’s Attorney General has set the playing field for Rajoy, leaving him less room to manoeuvre at key times.

The fact that peaceful, democratically elected officials are kept in prison adds strain ahead of the snap election on December 21. The idea of a slate supported by the widest parliamentary consensus possible, on the basis of obtaining the release of the prisoners and regaining home rule, seems a good way out of the current situation. But the political parties have become exhausted and are at loggerheads with one another. While the PDECat has Puigdemont, it is also weakened by bitter internal rifts and needs to rebuild itself ideologically. ERC is approaching these elections with discipline and determination to win the presidency. Talks between the parties are complex and the clock is ticking. Among the ashes, the option of running separately but with some shared goals begins to emerge: this would allow them to keep their own ideological profile beyond the independence debate.

We could have never anticipated the events of last month. Nevertheless, the Spanish government’s spokesman keeps pitching the notion that the snap elections will bring back “normality”. With our government in jail or in Belgium, we are nowhere near their “normality”, but the December polls should be seen as an opportunity.

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Translator’s note:

[1] Josep Borrell is a former PSOE leader and president of the European parliament who has recently been very vocal against independence.