Catalan Independence Can’t Win Without Broad Working-Class Support

In Sunday’s Catalan elections, pro-independence parties topped 50 percent support for the first time. But with popular mobilization on the decline, pro-independence forces will need to answer the social needs of the working-class majority if they are to rally a broad front against Spain’s inflexible constitutional order.

Demonstrators take part in a protest to support former Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont on January 30, 2018 in Barcelona, Spain. (David Ramos / Getty Images)

The bizarre parliament that came out of the Catalan elections of December 21, 2017, just after the failed declaration of independence and an avalanche of state repression, had long been a dead duck. On February 14, five million Catalans were called to the polls to elect a new government, in an election controversially staged amid the pandemic.

Pro-independence forces again won popular backing, this time with an outright majority of votes. Importantly, the center-left Esquerra Republicana (ERC), became the main pro-independence party for the first time since the return to democracy. A republican leader is likely to become Catalan president for the first time in ninety years.

Low Turnout

But another key factor was the high abstention — the 53.5 percent turnout was a 22.5 percent drop from the 2017 contest. This obviously owes in part to the pandemic, but it is also worth adding that the turnout in recent elections had been particularly high. In 2015 (a 75 percent turnout) and especially 2017 (an almost 80 percent turnout), pro-independence forces had made the contests into “plebiscites on independence,” for want of an official vote on separation. Such turnout levels are much higher than any neighboring country.

This sharp fall in voting numbers (especially in less well-off parts of Barcelona) may, therefore, also express a certain frustration and political disarray among parts of the population who did vote en masse in 2017. This affected pro- and anti-independent forces on broadly equal terms, and it would probably be too rash to attribute this to particular policy stances or indeed the Catalan government’s rather troubling management of the COVID-19 crisis in recent months.

Nonetheless, pro-independence forces mobilized more people (however enthusiastically or otherwise) than the unionist parties. Indeed, they came out of the February 14 election with greater electoral legitimacy than ever, having finally surpassed the crucial threshold of 50 percent support.

In debates following the abortive October 1, 2017 referendum on Catalonia’s future, some pro-independence forces explained the movement’s setbacks partly in terms of its insufficient legitimacy. While mass mobilizations dating back to at least 2012 — and subsequent breakthroughs at the ballot box — made this a hegemonic movement in Catalonia, it never actually managed to beat the combined score for unionist parties and those others not explicitly committed to independence, notably En Comú Podem, the Catalan Podemos franchise. For many leaders, it was thus necessary (if insufficient) to build a clear majority (i.e. by not just winning most seats in parliament, but taking over 50 percent of the popular vote).

This happened on Sunday. But today’s political environment is quite different than two years ago — offering little succor to a unilateral strategy based on a majority of seats and 51 percent of the vote. This is grist to the mill of ERC’s “broad road” strategy, based on the management of Catalan institutions and the pulling together of a broad “pro-sovereignty” space ranging from center-right, Catalan-nationalist Junts to Podemos.

This strategy is based on what we could call a kind of “welfare nationalism,” boosting the independence movement with redistributive public policy and diversity measures. This point has always been a focus of conflict between left-wing pro-independence forces (from ERC to the anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy party [CUP]) and the Catalan-nationalist center-right. The latter forces have, however, been greatly weakened by the procés — the jailing of its leaders by the Spanish courts — which can also be seen in this election.

Uncertain Future for the Pro-Independence Right

One of the main arguments Spanish-unionist parts of the Left raise against Catalan independence is the conviction that the mass movement is in reality in the grip of Catalonia’s old elites, organized around the Convergència i Unió (CiU) coalition which governed from the 1970s transition to democracy up until 2003, and again during the post-2008 financial crisis, when from 2010 to 2012 it imposed harsh austerity measures.

Doubtless, there was something to this. In 2012, Artur Mas’s CiU strove to draw the mass independence movement into a new economic pact with the state. Yet pressure from both the movement’s grassroots — and the intransigence of the right-wing Spanish government under Mariano Rajoy — blocked this move. This posed a dilemma to the forces rallied in CiU and its coalition began to break up.

On the one hand, its grassroots — largely the middle and working class in rural parts of Catalonia — radicalized. Meanwhile its backers among Spain’s economic elites, principally rooted in Barcelona, withdrew their support as Carles Puigdemont’s presidency — including the October 2017 referendum — accelerated the crisis around the national question. Destabilized after the unofficial plebiscite was suppressed, the Catalan center-right began to split into various small groups and factions (with one part even joining the Catalan Socialist Party, a unionist, soft-left force).

The Catalan pro-independence flag at a 2012 demonstration. (Ivan McClellan / Flickr)

In these elections, the majority group — Junts, backed by former president Puigdemont and his allies — was just edged out by ERC, which scored one more seat and is thus now in a position to demand the presidency. But also important is that PDeCat — the most moderate pro-independence force, with the most intransigent neoliberal positions — failed to enter parliament.

The result was that Junts’ thirty-two MPs (out of a hundred thirty-five in total) are now both the only representatives of the pro-independence center-right, and a minority as compared to the totals for ERC (thirty-three) and the anticapitalist CUP (nine). This provides a stronger chance of left-wing forces asserting their hegemony within the pro-independence bloc.

What remains to be seen is whether Junts can maintain its distinct political space. Indeed, it is more defined by its ideological tradition, as heir to a conservative Catalan culture, than a well-defined class program. Junts represents juxtaposed elements of precarious elements of the middle classes, the petty bourgeoisie, and more “popular” layers, especially outside the Barcelona metropolitan area. This itself provides contradictions that left-wing forces also upholding the banner of national self-determination can exploit, as in the case of the rent regulation measures approved under the last parliament thanks to popular pressure.

Anti-Capitalist Forces

The low turnout clearly helped the radical-left, pro-independence CUP: though it lost around ten thousand votes in 2017, its number of seats more than doubled, from four to nine. This is perhaps owed more to the loyalty of its own mobilized and active electorate than to the broadened appeal of its list, based on a pact between the CUP and municipal-radical forces of Guanyem.

Now, we shall see what role CUP will play in the government formation process. While campaigning, it hinted at the possibility of directly joining the government for the first time, indeed setting out four conditions. These are: an independence referendum by 2025; a shock social plan to confront the crisis, a plan for the ecological transition, and an end to the repression of hundreds of pro-independence campaigners (the Catalan police are in the hands of the Generalitat — Catalonia’s autonomous government — which has pursued judicial cases against activists).

But it isn’t clear what space there will be to advance these measures if the CUP does indeed enter the government. Catalonia has little autonomy in developing the kind of reformist agenda which CUP’s proposals suggest, for instance through the nationalization of strategic sectors, Universal Basic Income, an ambitious ecological program, or the public pharmaceutical supply. Indeed, such demands imply a direct clash with the Spanish state over the levers of power — something the main pro-independence parties are hardly willing to pursue, with the current balance of forces.

Pro-independence supporters during a rally in Barcelona, 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)

The “hot” period of social mobilization in Catalonia that began with the indignados movement a decade ago is now long in the past, and the possibilities of confrontation that might have existed at the moment of the October 2017 referendum are completely off the agenda for the larger pro-independence forces.

CUP, however, has stuck to its claim to be the “megaphone” for street mobilization. Faced with the consolidation, and indeed “cooling” of Catalan politics (notwithstanding the potential malaise generated by the health care crisis), the CUP has to reframe its role in a way that is effective in parliament as well as in the streets. Doubtless it is in a good position to give a lead to the radical and alternative left, not least given the weak results for En Comú Podem (nicknamed “los Comunes”), the formation made up of Podemos, and the old post-communist space, which maintained its eight seats but lost thirty-five thousand results.

Perhaps it is too early to explain the latter’s lack of success, but one obvious factor is its role in the Spanish government as junior partner to the soft-left Spanish-unionist PSOE. This experience has had only the most limited results either at the level of social measures or in terms of Podemos’s initial promise to deepen democracy. The much-vaunted European Recovery Fund money has been channeled toward the big firms on the IBEX 35 stock exchange, and there is little hope of any kind of redistribution.

Podemos’s subalternity to the constitutional monarchy known as the “78 regime” is further shown by the failure to try crimes by the former king and scandalous developments like the jailing of rapper Pablo Hasél, sentenced to nine months in prison for insulting the Spanish crown. Added to this is a certain failure to build roots outside of the Barcelona metropolitan area (where Ada Colau is mayor), not least on account of its timid approach to the national question, with pro-independence sentiment especially strong in the smaller centers and rural areas.

Soft-Left Success

But some of its weakness may owe to the “useful vote” for its own coalition partner, the soft-left PSOE (in Catalonia, PSC). After years of decline, it gained over forty thousand supporters and had more votes than any other party (though its thirty-two seats were edged out by ERC).

Decisively, its top candidate, Salvador Illa, became the main unionist leader in Catalonia, as the more right-wing Ciudadanos — a neoliberal-centrist party with sharply Spanish-unionist tones — fell from thirty-six seats to just six. Particularly notable was the Socialists’ return to strength in the so-called Red Belt (the industrial area around Barcelona, with a large population of workers coming from elsewhere in Spain) which never entirely disappeared, not least due to the party’s continuing local government presence.

The choice of Illa to head its list was particularly notable as he is the health minister of the PSOE/Podemos Spanish government. The holding of the early election in pandemic conditions — challenged by pro-independence forces — was widely seen as designed to aid his candidacy. However, his party remains far from able to build a majority opposed to the pro-independence forces.

Indeed, his role in the new parliament will be precisely to entrench the PSOE’s historic role as the main guarantor of the stability of the political and institutional order that emerged from the late 1970s transition to constitutional monarchy. Its establishment credentials are illustrated by its stance toward the scandal-ridden royal family, and its handling of European funds, continuing on from its role backing Troika-mandated austerity measures in the early 2010s.


The bitterest outcome of the February 14 vote was doubtless the breakthrough for the far-right Vox party, which entered the Catalan parliament for the first time, with eleven seats. If this was unprecedented, it didn’t come from nowhere. As mentioned, in recent years the Spanish-unionist leadership had been in the hands of Ciudadanos, a party that first emerged in Catalonia, specifically in order to confront developments of recent decades like the normalization of the Catalan language.

Ciudadanos’s own rhetoric and “tough” stance against a referendum on self-determination was soon outcompeted by the far-right Vox, made up of nostalgists for the Franco dictatorship. Embodying an extreme strand of Spanish nationalism, it openly calls for the total recentralization of the Spanish state and the dissolution of the autonomous regions and nations. Ciudadanos’s hardline Spanish nationalist theatrics, with its filibustering in parliament, opened the way to an unabashed far-right force. Indeed, the places where Ciudadanos had its best results were the same ones where Vox came second or third.

Ciudadanos’s particularity lay in the fact that it was a Catalan party with a specific agenda for Catalonia: to break with the consensus over language and cultural policy (and indeed the dominant use of Catalan in parliament) and paint the pro-independence forces as xenophobic and ethnocentric. Vox’s approach to the Catalan parliament is yet to be seen: its agenda is focused on the Spanish-wide level and has no more than rhetorical connection to Catalonia’s own specific problems, beyond simplistic solutions like closing down the public broadcaster, ending the use of Catalan in school and breaking up the autonomous government.

This far-right presence is nonetheless worrying, not least as — just like in other countries — it can also condition the positions of the forces with which it competes. Vox’s rise has translated into a harshening of more liberal right-wing forces’ stances, but in Catalonia, where politics heavily depends on the national divide, it could also affect forces like the PSC, which itself has no problem playing on identitarian themes and has entered into the kind of unionist “blocs” proposed by Ciudadanos. Further, Vox’s rise implies a growing focus on hitherto largely absent issues like the criminalization of immigration and housing occupations — themes today totally exaggerated by the media. This will also have a sinister effect in terms of clashes with social movements, especially Catalonia’s strong feminist movement and those fighting against evictions.

Hence a necessary first step for the incoming parliament will be the establishment of a firm pact among all anti-fascist political forces to isolate the far-right Vox.

Ways Forward

These results confirm the bloc dynamic that has grown in Catalan politics over the last decade, setting the pro-independence parties in outright counterposition to the unionist-“constitutionalist” bloc. As we have seen, there are also shifts within each. ERC has overtaken Junts to become the main pro-independence force, CUP at least has more potential to make its mark, and more moderate elements of center-right Catalan nationalism have declined.

On the unionist side, apart from the Vox breakthrough the main development is the rise of the PSC to the detriment of the center-right parties. Outside the two blocs, the Podemos-linked Los Comunes is, for now at least, largely aligned to PSC’s positions on the national question, though this has no concrete legislative expression as in the Spanish-level PSOE/Podemos government.

All indicators suggest the renewal of a ERC–Junts pact to lead the Catalan government, but this time with the more left-wing of the two taking the presidency. This is no small change — and having a republican president is an important symbolic shift. Yet the dominant paradigm within the pro-independence camp is a waiting game, and any attempt to mount a fresh confrontation with the Spanish state through popular mobilization is off the table.

Thousands gather in Barcelona’s Plaza Universitat during an October 3 general strike to protest the Spanish state’s repression of the Catalan referendum in 2017.
(David Ramos / Getty Images)

ERC’s strategy of showing its competence in managing Catalan institutions and building up its forces for a future moment of rupture may call itself a route to independence. Yet this could easily translate into a renewed version of the partial autonomy achieved during the Transition, with a few more competences granted for the sake of guaranteeing stability in Madrid, while making the ERC the main “managers” of autonomy. This would amount to a slightly more “progressive”-hued version of what the neoliberals of Convergència i Unió did in the past, with no fundamental rupture.

Beyond the (latest) advance for pro-independence parties, the overall result also hands an increased presence to the Left in general. This points to no general reordering of the political map. Los Comunes may have dreamt of a pact with both ERC and PSC, but such a choice strongly clashes with the dominant bloc dynamic, not least given that the Spain-wide PSOE enthusiastically supported the suspension of Catalan autonomy in October 2017 (Article 155) and even under the government of Pedro Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias, some of ERC’s own leaders are languishing in jail. In Catalonia itself, the PSC’s social stances are in fact little different to the center-right but pro-independence Junts, which at least voted for rent controls, unlike the Socialists.

Rather, the main challenge today is to build a broad left-wing front of forces in favor of self-determination, able to break with the pro-independence camp’s long dependency on the center-right, and the Left’s own long subalternity to the PSOE. Doubtless, the path toward such a bloc has to rely on the acceptance of Catalans’ right to decide on their own future, with democratic self-determination as a key programmatic focus. But at the same time, this has to be combined with social measures in the immediate, including an effective response to the post-pandemic crisis. This means not just making the most of the scarce resources available to Catalonia’s autonomous institutions, but also strengthening the social and popular base that has nourished the left wing of the independence movement for decades.

As we have seen, the way ahead is full of obstacles. But the parliamentary arithmetic resulting from the February 14 election is not such a bad starting point.