The Spanish Constitution Is Strangling Catalonia

The PSOE-Podemos coalition set to form Spain’s next government will rely on Catalan support in parliament. Yet after an election polarized around national tensions, both parties are ignoring Catalans’ call for self-determination.

Protesters wave flags in the street as a general strike is called 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. (Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images)

It’s been five weeks since the Spanish courts handed down long jail sentences to Catalonia’s pro-independence leaders — and there’s been no letup in the popular protests against the decision. From the mass occupation of El Prat Airport to the clashes in Barcelona city center, Catalan society has seen the largest and most violent disturbances since the return of democracy in the late 1970s.

These protests — and the Spanish nationalist reaction against them — were a key theme of the elections to the Spanish Congress held on November 10. Yet even as national tensions have hardened, and Spain’s far-right Vox party has soared in the polls, the public debate is, if anything, turning against the need for a negotiated solution to the conflict.

Certainly, the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) has not chosen the path of openness toward Catalan self-determination. In the run-up to the contest it even published a draft program that dropped its call for a federal Spain, as it bid to win back votes from the liberal-nationalist Ciudadanos.

This rejection of self-determination was not limited to Spain’s historic establishment parties. Pablo Iglesias’s Unidas Podemos had long invoked “the right to decide” — a euphemistic way of referring to Catalan “self-determination.” But in the campaign, it abandoned this line, limiting itself to a call for dialogue. This was further weakened by the insistence that any talks must take place “within the constitutional framework” — implying that Catalans will not, indeed, be allowed a referendum.

This shift is particularly important given its role in the incoming government. Within just days of the November 10 vote, Podemos announced a pre-agreement for a formal coalition with Pedro Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which will depend on Catalan and other regionalist parties’ parliamentary support. Yet Iglesias’s party, once a firm critic of the post-Franco Spanish constitution, has effectively fallen into line behind the PSOE’s own rejection of Catalan self-determination.

Such a turn is bad news for all who seek to challenge the political order set up in the transition from Francoism — the “1978 regime” long denounced by Podemos. And if the Left makes the Right’s case for it, then the Right will soon enough regain its own natural space. This was already visible in the election campaign, as the media-political legitimation of a harsh Spanish nationalism rewarded the post-Francoite Vox rather than its various more centrist imitators.

Without a doubt, the Catalan question will not easily be resolved — and the rise of the Spanish far right is deeply concerning. But merely trying to silence the Catalans offers no answers — and could even produce an intractable impasse lasting for decades, as in the Basque Country or the North of Ireland. One obvious path to resolution would involve the people’s own democratic decision. Yet even as Podemos is drawn into a PSOE-led government, this prospect seems increasingly distant.

General Election

This sense of impasse was evident after the previous general election on April 28 and the inconclusive coalition negotiations that followed. The indecisive result of that contest had thrown up barriers to coalition formation, with the PSOE unwilling to be seen as “in hock” to Podemos or, indeed, the various regionalist and pro-independence parties. PSOE leader and acting premier Pedro Sánchez called a “repeat election” for November 10 precisely to free himself from this dilemma. But, if anything, the Catalan conflict has hardened since that point, not least given the sentencing of pro-independence leaders in early October.

Within Catalonia, the election results on November 10 were not in fact ever so different from last time: the one notable exception being the breakthrough for the pro-independence radical left. Standing for the Spanish Congress for the first time, the anti-capitalist Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) won two seats in Barcelona and came just five hundred votes short of taking a third in Girona. Yet despite the intensity of recent street clashes, the election turnout actually dipped slightly.

The biggest single party was again the center-left, pro-independence Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) with thirteen seats (down two compared to April), followed by the regional affiliate of Sánchez’s Spanish-unionist PSOE (the PSC) with twelve. Ousted president Carles Puigdemont’s JuntsXCat edged up one seat to eight, but on the Spanish-nationalist right, Ciudadanos dropped three seats; it scored two MPs just like Vox and the conservative Partido Popular, which each gained one seat. En Comú Podem, supported by Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, held on to its seven seats, but former Podemos second-in-command Íñigo Errejón’s Más País performed abysmally and was defeated even by the animal rights party.

All in all, these results left the divide over the national question finely balanced, just like other recent contests in Catalonia. This effectively meant twenty-three seats in the Spanish Congress for supporters of Catalan independence and twenty-two for Spanish-unionists. This was, nonetheless, the best-ever result for pro-independence parties in a Spanish general election, following decades in which a large chunk of the pro-independence electorate had abstained from Spain-wide contests.


The breakthrough for CUP was decisive, in this sense. A split from the party had already run in the April 28 election; breaking with CUP’s previous abstentionist stance, it scored 113,008 votes. When CUP itself stood on November 10 it greatly improved on this tally, winning 244,754 votes and two seats in the Spanish Congress. Narrowly failing to take a third seat in Girona it also came close in Lleida in Tarragona, despite the difficulty of winning representation in these provinces.

The anti-capitalist CUP relied on its militants’ own energy and imagination, spending just €90,000 on its campaign. Its approach was well-reflected in campaign videos which showed CUP candidates and leaders heading onto a soccer field only to be greeted by crowds chanting the slogans heard at recent demonstrations. Indeed, CUP’s campaign strongly identified with these street protests — calling for the release of the over forty political prisoners — as well as foregrounding the party’s socialism and call for self-determination.

Its campaign also emphasized its planned opposition to the incoming Spanish government — its main slogan was “Ungovernable,” pointing to a plan of institutional and street action designed to block up the Spanish parliament and disobey the Madrid authorities. Nonetheless, CUP also seems to have moved away from a previous maximalist rhetoric which had brought it poor results in recent municipal elections. This was especially true in Barcelona, where it has doubled its score since May.

This result was, however, a slight setback for the social-democratic ERC, which lost two seats despite the sympathy among pro-independence voters after the jailing of its leader Oriol Junqueras. It likely suffered because of its avowed intention to back a PSOE government unconditionally, despite this latter party’s rejection of dialogue over the Catalan conflict. Its spokesman Gabriel Rufián also made serial gaffes, first taking a law-and-order stance against the street protests and then claiming them as his own. While the ERC dropped support in areas with a pro-independence majority it actually rose in historically unionist areas, doubtless because of its bid to expand its base among former PSOE voters by moderating its pro-independence rhetoric.

Paradoxically, Puigdemont’s JuntsXCat — a pro-independence party of the center-right — also increased its seat share by taking sharply “disobedient” stances akin to CUP’s. It gave its political cover for the disturbances of recent weeks, even though it is part of the Catalan government (together with ERC) and controls the same Catalan police forces who have worked with their Spanish counterparts in repressing the demonstrations. Some rather less political factors also fueled its support, from the candidacy of Laura Borràs — an excellent speaker — to the death of Puigdemont’s father. Facing an arrest warrant, the exiled Catalan president was effectively barred from returning to Catalonia for the funeral.

The Left Only Grew in the Periphery

Despite its falling support across Spain as a whole, the Left did well in other areas where it leads regionalist or pro-independence movements. In the Basque Country, the pro-independence EH Bildu — much of whose base are old supporters of the armed struggle once pursued by the Leftist Basque group ETA — won five seats, including the mother of a political prisoner widely seen as a symbol of the fight for civil and social rights. In Galicia the left-wing Bloque Nacionalista Galego also elected an MP.

This trend was also visible in the results for Errejón’s Más País, one of whose three MPs was elected for Valencia’s moderate-nationalist Compromís. Moreover, in Aragon there was a breakthrough for Teruel Existe, a citizen’s platform with a social-democratic program.

The Spanish-nationalist right also performed poorly in the peripheral nations, which are the bastion of the fight against the fascists. Indeed, Vox scored its worst results in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Navarre, and Galicia; in the Basque Country, there were no MPs for any of the Spanish-unionist right; Ciudadanos, the Partido Popular, and Vox were each left empty-handed.

This development also suggests the prospect of change on the left. There are now at least some voices, however timid, advocating for unity between the Spanish left and these regionally established forces. This could allow alliances between a small but enduring Spanish left, the left-wing pro-independence parties in the peripheral nations, and other less directly electoral movements like feminist and migrants’ campaigns. Timid for now, such calls represent an important basis for the future building of an alternative to the PSOE’s social-liberalism.

From Tsunami to Flood

In Catalonia itself, the battle is still hard-fought. For over a month there have been daily pro-independence mobilizations in Catalonia — and these did not stop just because the election was going on. Indeed, while the day before the vote is an official “day of reflection” on which campaign activities and protests are banned — on pain of fines and even imprisonment — Catalonia’s Tsunami Democràtic nonetheless called hundreds of actions for the eve of the November 10 election.

The call issued via its Android app and Telegram list (which has some four hundred thousand followers) brought many thousands of people onto the streets on November 9, especially in the main cities. This act of disobedience served as a call for the mobilizations for the week following the vote. On Monday, November 11, thousands of people came to block the main Catalan-French border crossing with the aid of the gilets jaunes from northern (French) Catalonia, and spent over twenty-four hours clashing with Spanish, Catalan, and French police. Delaying goods crossing the border, this action is estimated to have produced over €15 million in economic damage.

This action was repeated by Basques the following day in solidarity with the Catalan people; when it proved impossible to maintain the blockade at the border itself, they tactically retreated to Girona, where they blocked the AP-7 motorway — the main artery connecting Catalonia with France.

This disruption drew the criticism of En Comú Podem leader Jaume Asens, who laid into what he called “disruptive protests undermining our coexistence.” This reference to “undermining our coexistence” was especially remarkable, given its historic use against the Basque left in the 1980s during Spain’s violent “Years of Lead.”

The allegation of disruption was also poorly targeted — Tsunami Democràtic’s strategy is, indeed, to provoke as much as disruption as possible, it being understood that the state will not be able to handle a people mobilized on an ongoing basis. The partnership with the gilets jaunes was a particularly innovative move, in this regard, a solidarity initiative which could also bear many fruits in the future.

A Government Against Catalonia?

Two days after the elections, news spread of the agreement between the PSOE and Unidas Podemos to form a new government with Sánchez as prime minister and Iglesias as his deputy. It seems negotiations had proceeded throughout the election campaign — otherwise it would be hard to understand how parties which failed to reach an accord over the summer months could now do so with such speed.

The government agreement between Sánchez and Iglesias is built on a list of ten points: albeit rather vaguely, it invokes jobs, anti-corruption, climate change, wealth creation, sport, culture, feminism, the fight against the depopulation of Spain’s interior, Catalonia, and, lastly, checks on public spending. The development of these first eight focuses will surely be hampered by the final point on restraining public spending — a point doubtless included in order to avoid any sleepless nights for Spanish bosses and the European troika.

The ninth point on Catalonia is particularly worthy of attention, with its call for “normalizing political life,” “guaranteeing coexistence,” and “encouraging dialogue by seeking bases for mutual understanding within the Constitution.”

As we have said, the idea that a hitherto idyllic “coexistence” has been undermined is a totally conservative framing of the issue, which Podemos has now swallowed. To emphasize that the dialogue on Catalonia must be “within the Constitution” is effectively to say that it will be based on the denial of Catalan self-determination and the continued imprisonment of the political prisoners jailed for “sedition” and similar crimes precisely because they challenged this document. Moreover, while the agreement mentions strengthening regional governments, this is qualified by the insistence on “guaranteeing the equality of all Spaniards”: a framing often used by the Right and far right precisely as a means of denying that regional autonomy is legitimate.

The pact between the parties is also wobbly from a parliamentary standpoint — it can only get a majority with the support of Errejón’s Más País and parties from the peripheral nations. Yet this also bears the risk that in backing the government this maelstrom of parties will allow the Right and far right to present themselves as the only real opposition to the government, while they themselves are trapped by its logic.

A government of the Spanish left can never solve the Catalan conflict using the same recipes as the Right, based on condemning protest and insisting on the constitutional order established in the aftermath of Francoism. Indeed, upon its foundation Podemos had strongly rejected the “1978 regime” on which the PSOE and Partido Popular based their power. And if the Left goes along with the same playbook as the Right, people will always prefer the original to the copy.

The new parties of government are showing little sign that they will ever allow a Catalan referendum — the kind of democratic decision that could put an end to a crisis that has been raging since 2012. But with nationalist tensions in Spain constantly rising, a failure to change course will only strengthen the far right, whose shock troops feel more emboldened every time the Catalans are silenced.