Barcelona Shows How the Left Can Win

Jéssica Albiach

Spain goes to the polls today after a general election campaign electrified by the jailing of Catalan leaders. But Podemos’s regional alliance is resisting the rival nationalisms — and showing what the Left can achieve in office.

Ada Colau, Pablo Iglesias, Gerardo Pisarello, Jessica Albiach, and Lucía Martín. (Barcelona En Comú / Flickr)

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin

“We don’t have to cower before this aggressive, ignorant right wing,” Pablo Iglesias reminded Socialist Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sánchez during last Monday’s TV debate. The country’s acting prime minister, Sánchez spent most of the night trying to compete with the right-wing parties. In particular, this meant taking a hard line on the Catalan crisis — promising to ensure exiled ex-Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont would be extradited from Belgium to face justice in the Spanish courts.

Tensions in Catalonia ignited again last month after Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced twelve pro-independence leaders to lengthy jail terms for helping organize the outlawed referendum on seceding from Spain in 2017. This included thirteen years for former deputy premier Oriol Junqueras, who was found guilty of sedition. In response, massive protests broke out across the region, which turned to rioting after police forcefully broke up the occupation of Barcelona’s airport. Between October 14–18 the city witnessed some of the heaviest rioting in Spain for decades — with more sporadic clashes that followed.

The unrest has dominated the run-up to Spain’s general election on November 10. This vote is itself an expression of political crisis — it is the second such contest in six months, and fourth in four years. After the last contest in April, Sánchez suggested but then walked away from a potential left-wing coalition with Pablo Iglesias’s Unidas Podemos, triggering repeat elections in which his own PSOE could bid for a stronger mandate. Sánchez has used the standoff in Catalonia to pivot rightward — positioning PSOE as the only party that can deliver order and constitutional stability.

Yet this operation could well prove counterproductive. Polls suggest the PSOE will not in fact improve on its 28.7 percent result in April’s contest, with the party projected to lose between five and ten seats. Such a result should be enough to maintain the PSOE position as the country’s largest party, but the most likely outcome is some form of grand coalition between Sánchez’s party and its historic adversary, the right-wing Partido Popular.

To discuss the elections and the ongoing crisis in Catalonia, Jacobin’s Eoghan Gilmartin sat down with Jéssica Albiach, the head of the left-wing En Comú Podem in the Catalan Parliament. Formed by the regional alliance between Podemos and Barcelona mayor Ada Colau’s Catalunya en Comú, this party is on course to secure third place in Sunday’s poll in Catalonia behind Junqueras’s Esquerra Republicana and the Socialists. Fighting on a platform of social justice, reversing austerity, and dialogue on the national question, Albiach insists that only her platform — and the wider Unidas Podemos alliance — can offer an alternative to the clash of Spanish and Catalan nationalisms.

Institutional Gridlock

Eoghan Gilmartin

Unidas Podemos across Spain and En Comú Podem in Catalonia tend to struggle electorally when national disputes dominate the agenda rather than questions of social distribution. How, then, are you approaching the current campaign, in which the crisis in Catalonia is drowning out all the other issues?

Jéssica Albiach

We are fighting this campaign at a moment of deep institutional paralysis. Acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez seems incapable of proposing any viable solutions — whether for the clear economic downturn we are now entering or for the exceptional situation here in Catalonia after the jailing of pro-independence leaders.

At the same time, the current Catalan government [a pro-independence coalition between Junqueras’s center-left Esquerra and Puigdemont’s center-right Junts per Catalunya (JuntsxCat)] is also unable to offer any constructive response to the standoff. Instead [Catalonia’s right-wing] Premier Quim Torra has returned to the empty promises of a unilateral route to independence. This can only create further popular frustration. We are in favor of self-determination in Catalonia, but there is no means to exercise it unless there is a pact with the Spanish state, as well as international agreements. Two years ago, the independentist leadership created huge expectations among large parts of Catalan society [with its promise of imminent independence] even though it knew it could never hope to meet them.

In this context, we are waging our campaign on two key fronts. First, we are proposing a clear route out of the standoff on the national question, based around concrete solutions. Releasing the prisoners is a basic democratic requirement — which means we first need to find the most efficient legal mechanism to secure this. This then needs to facilitate real dialogue. We are proposing roundtable talks both between the various parties in the Catalan parliament and between Catalonia and Spain. While neither side should be expected to renounce their aims or principles, we need to take the first steps toward unblocking the situation.

This is also crucial because we seem to be heading toward a recession. The unemployment statistics released this week have been alarming [October saw nearly a hundred thousand job losses, the highest monthly increase since the height of the crisis in January 2012]. And so, second, on the social front, this election is also a question of who will be forced to pay for the coming crisis. What we are setting out to guarantee is that the cuts are not forced on those at the bottom, but rather those at the top. In particular, we are proposing a tax on the banks and financial sector, so that we can recuperate the €60 billion with which they were rescued in 2011.

Eoghan Gilmartin

At the level of the Spanish state, the institutional blockage largely owes to Sánchez’s pivot to the right — something he did despite winning April’s elections on the promise of cooperation with Unidas Podemos. He ultimately chose fresh elections over a left-wing coalition. What is he hoping to gain here? The polls show any hope of improving his electoral position has now disappeared.

Jéssica Albiach

These are completely unnecessary elections — a result of the fact that Sánchez has approached this moment of crisis purely as a game of chess, in which to outmaneuver his opponents, rather than as a statesman with a clear project for the country. Yet in calling a fresh election he did not seem to take into account that when the national-territorial question becomes the central focus, the Right always advances.

It was so irresponsible to go to the country again because the best Sánchez can hope for is that we end up with a similar result to April’s. There is, however, now also the possibility that in the current atmosphere, the three right-wing parties make gains and surpass the left vote. So, Sánchez is now engaged in a rightward shift, particularly on the Catalan question, as he tries to capture part of [the liberal-to-right-wing] Ciudadanos’s vote. He has moved away from a discourse that recognizes Spain’s plurinational character and that proposes a federalist solution to a hard line, one more centered on law and order.

In the leaders’ debate, what we saw were four right-wing parties and then Unidas Podemos — with Sánchez choosing to fight from the right. This is a more sincere representation of his current political position, as opposed to his past rhetoric about Unidas Podemos being his preferred partner for government. He publicly made this latter claim only during last April’s campaign but throughout the summer when we were in negotiations with PSOE. Yet at the same time, he was also seeking the abstention of the conservative Partido Popular and Ciudadanos so as to allow him to govern alone as a minority.

My concern is that the rightward shift in Sánchez’s discourse can only create disaffection among left-wing voters. They are being forced to vote again, and the risk is that they will just abstain. This is what happened in the Andalusian regional elections last December — creating an opening for a government of the Right backed by the extremist Vox party.

Unrest in Catalonia

Eoghan Gilmartin

Your colleague in En Comú Podem, Maria Corrales Pons, has described the riots in Barcelona as “mobilizations that are not demanding anything from politicians because they don’t expect anything of them.” It is a “generational cry” from younger Catalans who have given up on institutional politics and see the state as the source of “everything bad” which they have suffered. Would you agree with this characterization?

Jéssica Albiach

I think we need to look at these types of protests in all their complexity. They generally attract very young people. Some are primarily angry at the unjust sentence handed down by the Supreme Court while others, who were first politicized by the independence push in 2017, are also turning on the leadership of the independence movement itself.

With the release of documents and transcripts of private meetings, it is clear the leadership was aware that they were not going to achieve independence at that time and the route was going to be a long one. But this was not what they were communicating in public, and so the movement’s base, particularly the younger generation, now feels betrayed.

There is also a social element — a certain sense of desperation among a generation that knows they are facing a bleak future. They know they will live worse than their parents, and even having a university education is no guarantee of gaining access to a decent job. And so yes, I would agree with Maria that it is in large part a “destituent” movement that rejects institutional politics — the sense that “they don’t represent us.”

Eoghan Gilmartin

And how would you evaluate the response of both the Spanish and Catalan governments to the riots?

Jéssica Albiach

The police response was primarily coordinated by the Catalan interior minister Joaquim Forn, who is a member of Puigdemont’s pro-independence JuntsxCat. This gave rise to major contradictions in the Catalan government’s response. On the one hand, it was voting in the Parliament for the National Police and Civil Guard reinforcements to leave Catalonia, while at the same time it was its own interior minister who had requested their presence as backup for the Catalan police force.

There have been some disgraceful scenes with the police not only using rubber bullets, which have been banned by the Catalan parliament, but also engaging protesters with a level of violence which has been disproportional and, at times, arbitrary. We have demanded the resignation of the interior minister in light of this.

But it’s not just a matter of the individual minister. You had leading figures in the government encouraging the people to occupy Barcelona Airport while knowing the Catalan and National Police were being sent in to clear them. The same government backed the protesters while ordering security forces to charge against them. You cannot have it both ways.

Eoghan Gilmartin

There also seems to be growing division between the different independentist parties — with Junqueras’s Esquerra, at least implicitly, recognizing that a unilateral rupture is a dead end. Its strategy is now to concentrate on “widening its base” by appealing to those beyond the independentist bloc.

Jéssica Albiach

Yes, there is a certain infighting within the independence movement. Relations between Puigdemont, who is in exile in Brussels, and Junqueras have completely broken down. While both Puigdemont and Torra continue to stoke tensions, their [center-right] JuntsxCat alliance looks completely disorientated. Now that the utopian dream of a rapid and nearly magical advance toward an independent republic has failed, it has lost its way. There is also a certain disconnect between its leader in Belgium and the changing conditions on the ground.

Esquerra, in contrast, has recognized the failure of the unilateral route to independence. While not openly renouncing this approach, it has in reality charted a more pragmatic course. But I would also say there is a certain ambiguity in its shift. Esquerra have a number of high-profile figures who engage in left-wing rhetoric, like Gabriel Rufián, but in the end their approach to government is much more conservative. They have had no problem sharing power with the pro-independence right.

Eoghan Gilmartin

Do you see a progressive pact between yourselves, Esquerra, and the Socialists as a possible alternative government for Catalonia — one based on the social rather than national divide? This seems to be the only other option to another grand coalition uniting all the pro-independence parties.

Jéssica Albiach

What I would say is that the era of absolute majorities has ended both in the Spanish and Catalan parliaments. So, we need to think in terms of alliances. This is not only a question of “with whom,” but also of “how” and “for what purpose.” What we want is a Catalonia that is governed according to a feminist, green, and social-justice agenda, while also recognizing the plurinational nature of the state. We need a new social contract — replacing the one ripped up by the elites — and a new productive model along the lines of the Green New Deal. Our vision is of a post-capitalist Catalonia with secure democratic and social rights.

So yes, if Esquerra renounces the pursuit of a unilateral rupture and if the Socialists move away from continued judicial repression, then they would be our natural allies in terms of pursuing these ends. But as long as they remain entrenched in their current standoff over the national question, it will be difficult.

Eoghan Gilmartin

At the municipal level, your sister organization Barcelona en Comú has been in office for four years now, and the city’s mayor Ada Colau was reelected for a second term in May. Barcelona is one of the few contemporary examples of the radical left in government, albeit at a local level. How would you assess your time in office?

Jéssica Albiach

I think the balance of our four and a half years in City Hall has been positive. At the same time, it’s obviously been really tough. Our background is in the social movements and mobilizations of the last decade. But when you move from the streets into a position of administrative power, you have to realize that the institutions work at their own rhythm and also pose a series of limitations. We have not had a majority of seats, so it’s been a question of trying to reach agreements with other forces — which in times of repeated electoral campaigns is very difficult. Everyone is looking at the polls — thinking in their short-term party interests.

But saying that, I think we have also secured advances in a number of fundamental areas — implementing a series of feminist and environmental policies, as well as a number of social initiatives. Barcelona has also managed to cultivate a network of international alliances with other radical municipal governments and platforms, including in the United States. This has ensured that the city itself maintained a distinct political profile, beyond the independence movement.

Winning a second term in Barcelona in May also means that we can pursue a number of key projects which were not possible to implement in the first four years. One example is our plan to take back control of the city’s water supply — it is currently run by a corporate provider, but it ought to be under public control. In our first term, progress in this direction was hampered by corporate lobbying and other parties dragging their feet. Taking it back under municipal ownership is one of the central planks of our renewed platform for government.

So, yes, it’s been difficult — a real grind — but engaging in institutional politics has allowed us to achieve things we otherwise would not have been able to secure.