The fight for the democratic right to decide in Catalunya

Monday 12th June 2017

The announcement today by the Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, that a referendum will be held on the independence of Catalunya of Sunday 1 October responds to a longstanding demand by a large majority of the country. It comes after years of mass mobilisations in recent years, with demonstrations of up to 2 million people, and countless other actions.

Currently, around 80% of the the Catalan population are in favour of a referendum being held. Some of them would prefer it to be organised in agreement with the Spanish government in Madrid.

With this aim, over the last three months, a very broad campaign, the National Pact for the Referendum, collected half a million signatures in favour of the Catalan and Spanish governments coming to an agreement on a referendum. This campaign included the pro independence parties, but also “the commons”. This new left political space in Catalunya combines social movement activists and people from the new party, Podemos, as well as many from preexisting left organisations of Communist origins. Above all, the pact involved thousands of social and cultural organisations, including the main trade unions.

Despite this very broad call, the Spanish government has repeatedly refused (18 times, on one count) to even talk about holding a referendum. What’s more, they have systematically persecuted politicians in favour of Catalunya’s right to decide. The President of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell —who doesn’t come from the party structures, but was formerly the leader of a mass pro independence movement— is currently being prosecuted for having allowed the Catalan parliament to vote on these issues. Next Monday, Joan Josep Nuet, a long standing Communist, also a member of the parliamentary presidency, has been summoned to court over the same issue.

So today’s announcement is an important step forward in a long battle, and poses challenge to the Madrid government, and to all political forces both in Catalunya and in Spain.

We’ll have to see how far Madrid will go; will they try to physically repress the referendum?

Will the centre right Catalanist party of Puigdemont hold to a firm line? On the other hand the Catalanist right is in long term decline, with the left growing strongly among pro independentists; the anticapitalist CUP currently has 10 seats in the parliament of 135 MPs.

Another big question is how “the commons” react in Catalunya. They have insisted that they support the right to decide, but also that any referendum has to be agreed with Madrid. Now that it is clear that an agreement is impossible, either they support defiance, or else they abandon any defence of the democratic right to decide, simply because the Spanish ruling class is against it. This would make all their left program meaningless, because the Spanish ruling class would also oppose that.

And the other question is for the left in Spain. Faced with a conflict between the democratic rights of the Catalan population and the right wing Madrid government, will they take sides, and if so, which side will they be on? Historically, they have tended to use abstract “internationalist” arguments to, effectively, support the forced unity of Spain.

The victory of independence in Catalunya would increase the possibilities of radical change both inside Catalunya —in the form of a constituent process—, in Spain, as it would put into question the whole structure of the state, and more widely.

The issue in the Catalan referendum is not “nationalism” against “internationalism”, but rather of people’s right to decide about their lives in the face of impositions by an increasingly authoritarian state. The left should have no doubts about which side it is on.

David Karvala, Member of the anticapitalist network,