Catalunya’s Revolt Will Shake Spain Again

On November 10, Spain faces its fourth general election in as many years. As the national question continues to polarize Spanish politics, the rising protests in Catalonia are reenergizing the pro-independence left — and causing further strategic dilemmas for Podemos.

Young demonstrators gather following a week of protests over the jail sentences given to separatist politicians by Spain’s Supreme Court, on October 18, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. Sandra Montanez / Getty

November 10 will see Spain’s second general election of 2019, after the center-left PSOE failed to reach a governmental pact with Unidas Podemos. While each party blamed the other for the breakdown in talks, in truth only Podemos was ever really interested in forming a progressive coalition, as it accepted humiliating conditions in its bid to take up ministries in a PSOE-led government.

The approach taken by Podemos leaders around Pablo Iglesias never enjoyed unanimous backing. The leadership turned a deaf ear to the radical left (including both Izquierda Unida and Anticapitalistas) as well as the supporters of the party’s former number two Íñigo Errejón, who all preferred to maintain Podemos’s oppositional role even while reelecting the PSOE’s Pedro Sánchez as prime minister.

Such a choice was also favored by Catalunya’s biggest pro-independence party, the center-left Esquerra Republicana. It offered unconditional support for such an arrangement — a position much criticized in Catalunya, given both the trial of the leaders who organized the October 2017 independence referendum and Sánchez’s refusal to broker a negotiated route out of the Catalan conflict.

From a Catalan perspective, the greatest expression of Podemos’s genuflection to the PSOE came in September, when Iglesias said that if his party entered government with Sánchez it could hypothetically support a Spanish state intervention in Catalunya’s institutions. This would mean allowing the PSOE to break up the Catalan parliament and government using Article 155 of the Spanish constitution.

Conflicts over this question dogged both April’s general election and the talks which followed; in this sense, November’s contest could be considered something of a rerun. Yet it also takes place in a moment of heightened tensions, not least given the prison sentences handed down to pro-independence leaders on Monday. As the repression of the Catalan movement escalates, the Left finds itself in a strategic bind.


This difficult situation especially owes to the recent trial of Catalan pro-independence leaders, which resulted in a series of harsh prison sentences. After the trial began earlier in 2019, this judicial assault intensified on September 24 as Spain’s National Court ordered the detention of nine activists from the Committees for the Defense of the Republic, popular organizations that emerged two years ago in order to defend the polling booths during Catalunya’s October 1, 2017 independence referendum. These committees galvanized an ongoing mobilization during that vote and especially during the general strike that followed two days later.

After these nine activists were arrested, just two were released pending trial; the other seven were jailed under accusation of “terrorist organizing” and having stocks of “explosive materials.” In fact, they were only found in possession of chemicals used for everyday workplace or cleaning purposes; the charges were leveled even despite the total lack of violent actions throughout the civil disobedience campaigns and mobilizations of Catalan society that began in 2012.

If there has, indeed, been violence in this conflict, it instead came from the other side. Lawyers for the jailed activists (totaling sixteen people, including former members of the Catalan government) have denounced degrading treatment of prisoners amounting to torture, for instance interrogations lasting over twenty hours at a time.

This marks the return of the authoritarian “deep state,” stirring memories of the dirty war that peaked in the Basque Country in the 1980s.

Catalan society has been quick to respond, with mass mobilizations filling the streets of the main towns and cities to demand release for all political prisoners. Pro-independence parties have been unanimous in condemning the arrests and calling for the release of all those who have been jailed.

Conversely, Spanish-unionist forces have tried to create a situation of alarm by comparing this — utterly peaceful conflict — to low-intensity wars such as those seen in theaters like the Basque Country or the North of Ireland. Through such comparisons, Spanish unionism hopes to set itself up in opposition to a strawman “violent threat.”

In this same vein, mass media whipped up the supposed “terrorist” menace, in the bid to give Spanish society a totally unreal image of the Catalan “danger.” The aim, here, was also to force all political actors to take a position regarding this supposed “violence.” With Catalan figures compelled to define themselves in opposition to a nonexistent “violence,” it is surreptitiously hinted that such a threat could, indeed, exist — a tactic recalling George Lakoff’s “don’t think of an elephant.”

Another result of this strategy is that political forces across the spectrum now brandish Spanish nationalism as a means of picking up votes. Yet historically, Spanish nationalism has only ever benefited the systemic parties and in particular the Right. The deep state, the judiciary, and the public prosecutor alone know what role they will be playing in November’s election. But whenever such actors enter the stage, it’s never good news for peripheral nations, social movements, or the Left.

The Repeat Election in Catalunya

In Catalunya it was widely expected that the negotiations following Spain’s last general election in April would, indeed, lead to impasse, and the repeat election now to be held next month. But if the two largest pro-independence parties struck different postures during the negotiations over the summer, at heart their positions were built on the same fundamental principles.

Former president Carles Puigdemont’s center-right Junts per Catalunya took an apparently “tougher” attitude, reticent toward any coalition, while the center-left Esquerra Republicana appeared more submissive and open to propping up a government without setting conditions. Yet in fact both were prepared to back a PSOE-Podemos government, with which they would have had further possibilities to negotiate.

This was especially apparent in the final weeks of the negotiations between the PSOE and Podemos, before talks broke down. Here, Esquerra’s role became increasingly moderate and open to a pact, centering its strategy on a progressive government that could have issued a pardon signed off by the King or (preferably) negotiated an amnesty for the Catalan political prisoners, without them having to acknowledge their “crimes.”

This hope was thwarted, as Catalunya like the rest of Spain heads for fresh elections on November 10. But the political situation has changed, here as elsewhere. This is particularly true of Catalunya’s pro-independence left, making an unprecedented step into the Spanish electoral arena.

Its biggest single expression — the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) had, historically, taken an abstentionist position in all Spanish elections, considering these foreign to the Catalan political context in which it operates. However, others on the pro-independence left did make a historic first step into Spanish electoral politics in the April 28 contest, as Poble Lliure stood in partnership with Som Alternativa — an organization led by former Podemos MP Albano Dante Fachín — and the Pirate Party. Their Republican Front only just failed to win seats in the Spanish Congress, sparking a substantial change of approach within the pro-independence left.

On September 20, a few days before the repeat election was announced, an article by lawyer Xavier Monge — a former member of CUP’s national leadership — stressed the need to participate in the elections, with a plan solely focused on self-determination, an amnesty for prisoners, and the objective of making it impossible for the Spanish Congress to govern. This generated a storm of controversy online and even a communiqué by Endavant, one of the forces most hostile to electoral participation, calling for a boycott of the Spanish elections.

These developments forced CUP to open up a wider debate within the organization, which ultimately concluded in a national political council meeting which decided — by just one vote — in favor of a first bid to stand in the Spanish elections. Just as is usually the case in CUP, the debate featured a high level of grassroots participation and moments of high tension.

The fact that the CUP is standing in Spanish-state elections for the first time could shake even further the already inevitably agitated political space on the Catalan left. The first surveys suggest it will win between one and five seats in the Spanish Congress. Its candidates in Barcelona include members of the CUP national leadership (and former MPs) Mireia Vehí, Albert Botran and Eulàlia Reguant.

Not so Left-Wing

Another new force in the November 10 vote is Más País, the party of former Podemos number two Iñigo Errejón, which already made some headway in this May’s municipal and regional elections in the Comunidad de Madrid. Some cynics even say that Pablo Iglesias did not give in to PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez’s demands in coalition talks because he did not want to give Errejón time to rally his forces and build alliances in the various territories of Spain.

Errejón’s list for Congress is built on alliances with Compromís (sovereigntists for the region of Valencia), Chunta Aragonesista (Aragón regionalists), and splits among Podemos cadres around the rest of Spain. Only in Murcia has Errejón’s party been able to win over the ex-Podemos members of the regional parliament. Its presence in some Andalusian provinces has, however, sparked conflict, it having seemed likely that Adelante Andalucía would maintain its autonomy and receive the backing of the whole political space formerly represented by Podemos. Errejón’s candidacy has also sparked conflict in the province of Barcelona, where until a few hours before the deadline he had lacked enough signatures to stand. Here, he has clashed with the loose tendency represented by mayor Ada Colau, who considers the Más País election bid a “betrayal” of the unity of her political space.

With a discourse full of political commonplaces and pro-system logic, Errejón’s new party offers a left-wing version of the aesthetics of Macronism, like the French president relying on empty signifiers that can serve as Trojan horses for all manner of contradictory ideas. For instance, even when Errejón raised such a proposal as the thirty-two-hour working week, his plan also included the possibility of a further deregulation of workers’ shifts.

However, at the same time, Errejón has also sought to stake out his left-wing credentials. When was accused of failing to clearly outline a political program, he quickly sought to dismiss such claims by presenting a list of demands directly copying Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party (for instance, the call for a four-day week) or else Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.

The State’s Prisons

After a week of rumors, October 14 saw the official sentencing of the Catalan leaders who had been put on trial earlier this year. The court issued a thirteen-year jail term for former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras (the longest of any of the defendants) and twelve years for three advisors, Raül Romeva, Jordi Turull, and Dolors Bassa. Each of these were convicted of sedition and the misappropriation of state funds (i.e., in order to organize the referendum); two other defendants (Josep Rull and Joaquim Forn) were absolved on this latter count and condemned to ten and a half years’ jail time. Former parliamentary president Carme Forcadell was sentenced to eleven and a half years’ imprisonment for sedition, and civil society leaders Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart received nine years for this same crime.

This decision soon sparked protests. For some weeks the popular independence movement has been gathered around an anonymous platform called Tsunami Democràtic, which operates via a Telegram channel. Today, it has 250,000 people signed up, as it directs a fresh wave of nonviolent civil disobedience across Catalonia. Indeed, as news of the sentences spread on Monday, Tsunami Democràtic immediately reacted by calling an occupation of Barcelona’s Josep Tarradellas airport, estimated to have involved the participation of some 25,000 people, marching along the motorway from Barcelona and blocking off the main entries to the city. The police repression aimed at unblocking the access routes to the airport led to a pitched battle, leaving dozens wounded; one person even lost an eye.

Tsunami has called at least a week of mobilizations, designed to grow both in intensity and across the territorial expanse of Catalunya over coming days. At the same time, blockades are spreading, and Committees for the Defence of the Republic are starting up again, as they did at the moment of the 2017 referendum. The fact that the police violence was exercised by joint Spanish and Catalan forces may well generate disaffection toward the main pro-independence parties (JxCat and Esquerra) and shift part of pro-independence opinion toward forces like CUP.

But the possibility of Catalan revolt, extending across the next weeks and months, could also produce unexpected effects across Spanish politics in the run up to the November 10 general election. It may shake the hornets’ nest of the Spanish nationalist vote — something which always benefits the Right. Seeking to put the brakes on this effect, the PSOE’s Sánchez is turning to the most nationalist of discourse, in the bid to “save Spain.” The Spanish state is again displaying a profound regime crisis in which, as the late PSOE minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba put it, it is fine to beat up on democracy if that means preserving national unity.

Make Spain Great Again

A Spanish nationalist framing has, indeed, taken over the whole election campaign: each party’s election slogan has picked up the word “Spain,” from the PSOE’s Ahora España (“Now, for Spain”) to the liberal-nationalist Ciudadanos’s España en marcha (“Spain on the Move”; a clear reference to Emmanuel Macron’s “En Marche!”), or the far-right Vox’s España siempre (“forever Spain”). We also see this turn in Iñigo Errejón’s party name Más País (“More Country”), and, most disturbingly, the conservative Partido Popular’s ¿Ellos o nosotros? (“Them or Us?”). Only Podemos and parties in peripheral regions have not fronted such Spanish-nationalist slogans.

This also demonstrates the importance of the national question in the current Spanish situation, and in particular the Catalan crisis. Can the Left break out of a purely nationalist framing? This does, indeed, seem difficult — after all, when nationalism becomes a force, it has a habit of leaving its mark on everything.

Yet not all is lost. The days since Monday’s verdict have seen sharp clashes, with the Catalan people ever more at odds with the pro-independence government and a rising prospect of large-scale revolt. The people in the streets has its program — an amnesty for prisoners, self-determination, the departure of Spanish police and military forces, the end of repression, and the resignation of the Catalan government. After three days of confrontations in Barcelona and the other main cities, Friday’s general strike called by the pro-Catalan unions is backed by all the pro-independence forces.

After the victorious mobilizations in Ecuador and the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, Catalunya could prove to be a fresh focus of conflict, in this case on the territory of the old continent itself. In the weeks before Spain goes to the polls on November 10, this is also a situation that can benefit the forces of the Catalan left — so long as they are able to channel the spirit of revolt.