Some day someone will lay the ground for a negotiation with the State that dignifies democracy and the ability of the political actors to work for Spain and Catalonia’s progress, either together or as separate countries, but that won’t be happening now. The Supreme Court’s foolish sentence against the independence movement’s social and political leaders has prompted a furious response by Spain’s political right and chattering class, who demand retribution rather than justice, and have called out alleged “prison privileges” [for the convicts] and stoked an increasingly violent response by police against dissidents and protestors. In a country of fleeting composure, the PSOE, the PP and Ciudadanos outdo one another in their slurs and capitalisation on the Catalan issue to lure voters in the upcoming November polls, a snap election that should have never been called and may have a nasty surprise in store for the PSOE propagandists.
PM Pedro Sánchez is struggling to strike a balance and is reluctant to invoke Spain’s National Security Law, as the hard right has been demanding, so as not to jeopardise the socialists’ result on November 10. He makes up for that with his Interior Minister and gesture politics, such as refusing to speak to Catalan president Quim Torra and saying he feels “embarrassed and saddened” by medical staff protesting his trip to Hospital de Sant Pau this week [where he visited a Spanish police officer who had been injured in the riots]. Sánchez says he didn’t get the respect that his “high office deserves”, but fails to acknowledge that his Catalan counterpart is also worthy of the respect he denies him.
The PP, Ciudadanos and a faction within the PSOE are eager to carry out the long-awaited recentralisation of Spain and Pablo Casado can’t conceal —not even with his newly-grown beard— his intention to reclaim the regions’ devolved powers as part of his homogenising agenda in Spain.
In this scenario, a possible option was to roll the dice and allow chance and the streets to handle the response to the verdict. Another option was to take stock of the strength of either side, a sort of estimation of the structures of the pro-independence project after the lessons learnt in 2017 about Spain’s determination. Feeling impotent in the face of an abusive sentence and Madrid’s refusal to engage in talks, the Catalan government and the political parties that support it have chosen to hit the gas pedal, hoping the streets will succeed where they failed on October 27, 2017. Throwing the dice is always uncertain and a win is even more difficult when they are loaded. How can the street protests play a determining role? Only through sustained, peaceful means.
This uneven trial of strength will continue until the Spanish elections in November. The large peaceful marches will remain the principal instrument to pressure the State, whose strategy is to frame Catalonia’s independence movement as a security problem —as they did in the Basque Country for years— and oppose it with the same arsenal. If the pro-independence camp is equated to violence, it will trigger its downfall, not merely because it will facilitate and invite Madrid’s clampdown, but because it might lose the social base that has accompanied to date. In fact, some of the political actors admit that the State cannot be beaten in the current context of protests, not even in a hypothetical violent scenario —which we haven’t seen in Catalonia— and they recall in private how “the State endured 800 killings” [while ETA was active in the Basque Country].
It looks as if things will likely get worse before they get better. Like Sisyphus, Catalonia’s independence movement keeps rolling an immense boulder uphill, the same one that threatens to crush it. It is the same boulder Spain will have to push, if Spaniards ever choose to demand a solid democracy free of Francoist remnants, a democracy that recognises diversity.
Moving the body of dictator Francisco Franco from a mausoleum guarded by the Catholic church —an affront to his victims— to a cemetery is an important first step to overcome the tics of Spain’s fearful democracy. But it is only the first step, not the culmination of a process where the mutual understandings and privileges that reach into the furthest corners of public life are renewed.
Saturday’s massive demonstration in Barcelona city against the convictions in the case of the 2017 Catalan independence bid is further proof of the movement’s civic-mindedness. The elections of November 10 will be the next landmark. Only after the vote will the ground be laid to try to mend the political relationships that remain poisoned and broken today. To that effect, we will need to know the percentage of support that the two sides have garnered in Catalonia, mutual recognition based on respect and a realistic analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. And, above all, we will need a leadership that is able to dialogue and compromise with the public’s acknowledgement. In Madrid there is talk of a possible entente between the PP and the PSOE, who recognise each other as state parties, that is, with experience in office. If they believe that a solution agreed between Spain’s two main parties —who are in a minority in Catalonia— will provide stability, they are wrong. It would merely perpetuate the conflict.