The Catalan elections on 21st December represent a slap in the face for the strategy of the Spanish government and their efforts to introduce direct rule and smash the independence movement. The Spanish ruling party has been reduced to three seats in Catalonia and the pro-independence bloc has once again won an overall majority in the Catalan Parliament.
These elections took place in exceptional conditions, starting with the fact that they had been convened by the Spanish government after sacking the Catalan government and disbanding the Catalan parliament, using powers arising from article 155 of the constitution. The stated aim of the parties that supported this move - the ruling right-wing Popular Party (PP); its junior partner, the liberal Ciudadanos (Cs); and the ‘social democratic’ PSOE - was to form a 'constitutional government' in Catalonia and prove that the pro-independence bloc did not have a majority.
To achieve this aim they used all means at their disposal. Eight prominent candidates of the pro-independence parties are either in jail or in exile. This includes Catalan president, Puigdemont, who was a candidate for Junts per Catalunya (JuntsxCat, United for Catalonia); the number two on the JuntsxCat list, Jordi Sánchez, the leader of the Catalan National Assembly, remanded in custody in a Spanish jail on charges of sedition); and Oriol Junqueras, the leader and candidate of ERC (Catalan Republican Left, centre-left nationalist), who is also remanded in custody on charges of rebellion and sedition. All of them were prevented from taking part in the campaign and punished by the prison authorities for smuggling out messages, which were read or played during election meetings.
Heightened political polarisation produced a record turnout of 81.94 percent. This is a record not only for Catalan parliamentary elections, but also for Spanish parliamentary elections in Catalonia and in the whole of Spain.
A blow against the 1978 regime
Despite all of the petty restrictions on democratic rights imposed during the campaign and the fact that Catalan institutions are under direct rule from Madrid, the Catalan electorate delivered a severe blow to the ‘constitutional bloc’, the 1978 regime, which did not achieve its aims.
The pro-independence bloc renewed its overall majority of seats with 70 (68 are required) and the same percentage of votes (47.5 percent) as in 2015, but this time on the basis of a higher turnout. The article 155 bloc managed to win 57 seats with 43.5 percent of the votes, a slight increase from its 2015 results (52 seats with 41.62 percent of the votes if you include Unió, which did not get any seats). The sum of the votes of JuntsxCat, ERC and the CUP is over 2,060,000, approximately 100,000 more than in 2015.
Within the pro-independence bloc, JuntsxCat managed to get more votes (21.65 percent), narrowly, than ERC (21.39 percent). But it was still the worst ever result for the list, which represented the legacy of CDC: the historical party of Catalan bourgeois nationalism.
ERC had its best result ever, but it was a soured by the fact that all opinion polls had predicted they would comfortably overtake their former coalition partners. It was not to be. Puigdemont played his cards cunningly, ditching his own party and establishing a ‘broad list’, which he branded as “the president’s list”. Using more fighting language and appealing to his legitimacy as a Catalan president who had been sacked by the Spanish regime, he managed to come from behind and narrowly beat ERC.
The anti-capitalist, pro-independence CUP had a bad result: 4.45 percent of the votes and only 4 seats. For comparison, it had 8.21 percent and 10 seats after the 2015 elections. It ran a very good and militant campaign, in which it insisted on the defence of the Catalan Republic and the mandate of the 1st October referendum, linking these to the question of winning and defending social rights, and talking openly about socialism and internationalism.
But these strengths in the CUP's campaign were offset by a number of factors. Firstly, the memory of its past mistakes in supporting JxSí and its budget of cuts. Secondly, the fact that many of its votes in 2015 were on loan from ERC supporters who did not want to support JxSí and who have now gone back to ERC. Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that during the crucial events of the Catalan October, the CUP was not seen clearly enough as offering an alternative leadership.
Ruling class appeals to Spanish nationalism
Within the article 155 bloc, the Spanish ruling PP had its worst ever results in Catalonia, coming last of seven parties and getting only three seats in the Catalan parliament, with barely 4 percent of the vote. This was an absolute debacle; after the 2015 elections, the PP had 11 seats on 8.5 percent of the vote. The PP attempted to appeal to the Spanish reactionary nationalist vote by claiming sole responsibility for having “beheaded the pro-independence parties”, as the vice-president of the Spanish government Saenz de Santamaría put it. But on this terrain, it was outstripped by its junior coalition partner Cs, which will now demand its pound of flesh.
The increase in support for the extreme liberal Spanish chauvinist Cs in formerly left-wing strongholds and working class neighbourhoods and towns is worrying. Ciudadanos came first with 25 percent of the vote and got 37 seats (up from 18 percent and 25 seats) by taking half of the PP votes and mobilising a layer of people who previously did not turn out to vote.
Cs won in three out of the four provincial capitals, as well as in all of the major cities in the Barcelonès, Baix Llobregat, Vallès Occidental and Vallès Oriental counties (Barcelona, Hospitalet, Badalona, Santa Coloma, el Prat, Cornellà, Sant Boi, Rubí, Sabadell, Terrassa), which have a left-wing tradition and are ruled in many cases by the left or the Catalan Socialist Party PSC.
In a context of heightened polarisation along questions of identity, Cs was able to demagogically combine Spanish nationalism with an appeal to social questions. This phenomenon can only be fought by a class policy, which puts the interests of working people as workers first.
Finally, the results of CeC-PODEM - which does not fit in the pro-independence nor the ‘constitutional’ bloc - were bad. The electoral coalition lost 1.5 percentage points and three seats from an already poor result in 2015. Its attempt to remain neutral in the Catalan conflict by blaming both sides equally meant it lost votes to both camps.
Podemos and the Commons are a far cry from their former selves of only two years ago, when they presented themselves as representing a clear break with the 1978 regime and austerity policies. Now they lament the “breakup of the 1978 pact” and aim to manage the system within the limits of what is possible. Their main criticism of 1st October independence referendum is that it had “no guarantees” and that it was “unilateral”.
The power of the masses
The victory of the pro-independence bloc is a blow to the Rajoy government and the Spanish regime as a whole. If you want to know who lost you need to listen to the words of the leader of the Catalan PP, the hated xenophobe García Albiol:
"Today is a bad day for the PP, but also for the future of Catalonia. We are very worried about the political and social future of Catalonia with a pro-independence majority in parliament".
That does not mean that the pro-independence parties will have an easy task in forming a new government. Both JuntsxCat and ERC have already climbed down from any idea of pursuing unilateral action in moving towards a Catalan Republic. Spanish president Rajoy has already warned that if they do so he will use article 155 again (which, in any case, has not yet been lifted).
The wholly exceptional character of these elections is shown by the fact that unless those elected deputies who are still in jail or in exile (eight in total) are allowed to take their seats, the pro-independence majority will vanish. On election day itself, the Spanish authorities announced that the investigation into the charges of sedition and rebellion had been expanded to include those responsible for the mass demonstrations on Catalan national day between 2012 and 2017, as well as a number of prominent Catalan politicians, parliamentarians and others who were present at the 20th September protest against Spanish police raids.
The CUP had said prior to the election that it would not allow its votes to be used for the formation of any government that was not fully committed to the 27th October proclamation of a Catalan Republic. It will now come under a lot of pressure to make concessions and allow Puigdemont to be returned as president. It should resist such pressures and learn from the lessons of its previous mistakes.
In the past, the CUP made concessions to JxSí in exchange for the convening of a referendum on independence and a commitment to respect its results. At the moment of truth, it became clear that neither ERC not PDECAT politicians were fully committed to this goal. They went further than they originally intended to, due to the pressure of the masses and the outright refusal of the Spanish state to make any concessions.
In fact, the main lesson of the events of the Catalan October is that any gains made were the direct result of the intervention of the masses. All the retreats, vacillations and indecisiveness took place when JxSí politicians were allowed to make decisions and plot ‘clever’ manoeuvres behind closed doors.
Now that the elections are over it is necessary to make a serious balance sheet of the extraordinary events of the last few months. In our opinion, the clear lesson to be drawn is that the struggle for a Catalan Republic can only be successful if it is a revolutionary struggle against the 1978 regime, clearly linked to the struggle for socialism.
That can only carried out if the CUP sets itself the task of winning over a majority in the Republican movement for such a perspective. That means basing itself firmly on the working class, the organised struggle of the CDRs (the Committees for the Defence of the Republic), and challenging openly the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians whose vacillations have prevented the movement from going further.