Why Podemos and els Comuns have so far failed the Catalan fight

Ada Colau Ballano

Ada Colau Ballano has become a cause célebrè among many environmental activists internationally. 

Progressive environmental and social policies have been won in Barcelona and across Catalonia. This has led activists around the world to examine Spanish grassroots movements. LUKE STOBART, who is researching a book for Verso on the new politics, warns that hard lessons do have to be learned

In its beginnings Podemos and the Commons promised a 'democratic revolution' - but in Catalonia they have failed a massive democratic test.

Catalonia and its capital have in recent years seen many attempts at improving the environment and society. The Town Hall led by activists in the Barcelona en Comú (BeC) platform has managed to include environmental clauses in 80 per cent of public contracts.

It now has a municipal energy corporation that will employ solar panels around the city to illuminate street lighting and public buildings. By January some households will be able to switch to public energy - and enjoy reductions to bills if they install their own solar panels.

Advances such as these – as well as in the social field and the ability of campaign groups to shape policy – have made mayor Ada Colau and ‘the Commons’ a cause célebrè among many activists internationally. 

Collective empowerment

Environmental laws with a potentially far bigger reach were passed by the Catalan parliament – led by an alliance between pro-independence platforms. These included a ban on fracking, and introducing carbon taxes and targets for making energy provision renewable. Further legislation was approved to prohibit evictions, close migrant detention centres, and introduce a basic income. 

The problem with the parliamentary changes has been that the Constitutional Court (TC) - Spain’s highest legal body - suspended their application in the run up to the referendum on independence. The odd suspension has in turn been lifted but others – including against fracking – have not.

In some cases rejection was attributed to the Catalan parliament supposedly acting beyond its administrative jurisdiction, but ideological motivations were also apparent. For instance, the TC ruled that imposing a 50 percent target for renewable energy (only by 2030) would be too costly for firms! 

The suspensions added to Catalans’ existing resentment towards the state’s prohibition of a referendum on independence. In the end, more than two million people made that vote happen – on 1 October 2017 –despite large-scale police violence. This peaceful civil disobedience has been described as “one of the most powerful demonstrations of collective empowerment in Europe in decades”. 

In its beginnings Podemos and the Commons promised a 'democratic revolution' - but in Catalonia they have failed a massive democratic test.

Left response

This mobilisation and a general strike two days later was opposed by the Catalan one per cent - as shown by the largest firms relocating their headquarters elsewhere in the Spanish state - and was led by an independence movement that was politically mixed and fairly middle-class, but more left-wing than the Catalan average.

Elections and polls suggested that an independent Catalonia run by parties to the left of traditional social democracy was a real possibility. So surely supporting Catalan self-determination was a ‘no brainer’ for the left? Not so - unfortunately.

The Socialist party (PSOE) – if they should even be seen as left-wing – has been a pillar of support in suppressing Catalonia’s self-government after its parliament declared independence in late October.

The party was rightly attacked for doing this by Podemos and the Barcelona and Catalan Commons, which are all political organisations created out of a wave of grassroots protest in Spain between 2010 and 2014. BeC even ended its government coalition with the Catalan Socialists.

Yet crucially neither Podemos or ‘els Comuns’ recognised 1 October as a real - or binding - referendum, in the process demoralising and saddening a great many Catalans. This was despite the nastiness of the Spanish state being clear long before the 1 October repression.

The Rajoy government had refused many Catalan requests for dialogue over holding a bilaterally recognised vote, and a minister was revealed to have conspired with ‘anti-corruption’ chiefs and police to expose (or frame) pro-Catalan politicians for corruption. A handful of Catalan ministers were fined 5 million euros for holding a non-binding referendum in 2014. 

Internal divisions 

A gulf emerged between much of the grassroots of the ‘new politics’ and their leaderships. When Podemos’ Catalan members voted to participate on 1 October, Pablo Iglesias, Spanish general secretary, rapidly tweeted that if he “were Catalan”, he would not vote.

The parliamentary group leader of the Catalan Podemos-Communist (CSQP) alliance played a notable role attacking the “illegality” of the referendum. The Euro-Communist leader bureaucratically silenced pro-referendum voices within the group, despite half of CSQP voters backing a unilateral referendum.

The general secretary of Podemos Catalonia, Albano-Dante Fachín, took a very different approach. Despite not being pro-independence, he was among the first to call for the grassroots occupation that took place on 1 October, which he rightly maintained was needed to defend democracy

Colau and Iglesias were active in denouncing the savagery of the state after the struggle escalated from late September, sparked by police raiding government offices and arresting officials. This was a very welcome contribution due to their considerable political profile across Spain.

However, once independence was declared, the Catalan ministers were imprisoned and new elections were imposed, Comuns leaders spent almost as much time attacking those being repressed as the authoritarian actions by the state.

Moreover, in the election campaign, despite the imprisonment of ministers and activists, the Commons-Podemos-Communist coalition was silent over ways to overcome the national conflict. 

Justifications for ambiguity?

What were the reasons new left gave to support its stance? Ada Colau told me in March that the referendum could not be have been treated as binding because “many Catalans felt it did not address them”.

She argued that Catalans’ were more likely to get a right to decide through winning “new majorities” in Spain, rather than the unilateral road which she said “produced repression, the imprisonment of leaders, and the loss of Catalan self-government”. Similar ideas have been defended by Podemos and Communist partners – among them IU leader Alberto Garzón.

For Catalan activists Pau Llonch and Josep-Maria Antentas, the promise of constitutional reform through political change on a Spanish level rings hollow. The impossibility of minority-national independence is a pillar of the constitutional text, which was mainly written by ex-Franco supporters.

Reform to the text can only be approved if backed by two thirds of members in both the Congress and the Senate. But the three biggest political groups in Congress actively support the repressive intervention in Catalonia, and the make up of the Senate is even less favourable to change.

Podemos is the one Spanish party that acknowledges the ‘multi-national’ nature of the state and defends progressive reform. But the organisation has been in steady decline on many levels – exemplified by its current crisis over a party plebiscite on whether Iglesias and his parliamentary-spokeswoman partner were right to buy an expensive house in an elite area!

Furthermore, the party’s aspirations have been lowered to being a junior partner in a Socialist (PSOE) government, and the PSOE wants to harden the constitution to facilitate longer sentences for those struggling for independence! All this makes territorial change through Madrid at best a pipe-dream, and at worst an insult to people’s intelligence. 

Progressive struggle

The second problem with Podemos and the Commons’ approach has been their decision to effectively turn their backs on a mass grassroots movement. By denying the practical effects of the movement’s central act – the referendum – they may have arguably encouraged the offensive by Rajoy and the judges. It is easier to attack a vote only supported by “nationalists” – rather than a broader group of supporters.

As state, media and corporate elites all acted against the vote, the referendum needed be treated as a form of class struggle. Miscalculations also have been made on the pro-independence side: especially by its liberal leadership, which was slow to declare independence and then deserted the battlefield during the backlash. But Podemos and els Comuns’ ambiguities also have weakened the movement.

Fundamentally, the ‘new politics’ has made the old mistake - also made by early social-democrats - of seeing the institutions as the main instrument through which to implement change. This leads to an obsession with winning elections and remaining popular. This in turn leads to attempts to represent the many potential Commons voters that have Spanish nationalist ideas.

Iglesias and Colau’s left-reformist strategy led them to join forces with Communist-led organisations – such as ICV in Catalonia. Yet for decades ICV’s main political aspiration has been to form the left wing of the existing power structures.

It thus was predictable that they would leap to the defence of the post-Franco regime at its most difficult hour, and that they would make it difficult for more principled members of the new parties to be able to shape events.

Repelling progressives

As the new left has adapted to being in the institutions it has progressively abandoned commitment to the continued fight for minority-national democracy, including the Commons’ initial defence of Catalonia as deserving its own “sovereignty”.

The Spain-wide Podemos has been even worse at responding to the Catalan struggle because of its Laclauian populist strategy – based on mobilising “progressive patriotic” sentiment.

This approach was modelled on Latin American political movements that mobilised left-nationalism in a context of US regional hegemony and interference.

But such a strategy is more problematic in the Spanish state. As well as Spanish nationalism repelling progressives due to its association with Franco’s regime, it is a worldview difficult to marry with allowing Spain’s minority nations to secede.

When Podemos first stood in elections - in May 2014 - its programme included Catalans having the “right to decide”. Once it adopted populism – later combined with euro-communism – it even dropped support for a grassroots initiative to create a progressive Catalan constitution (as supported by many federalists as well as enthusiasts for independence). 

In its beginnings Podemos and the Commons promised a “democratic revolution” - but in Catalonia they have failed a massive democratic test. Fortunately the pro-Catalan grassroots are still active on the street fighting for change. Catalan environmentalists and other campaigners could learn much from them.

This Author

Luke Stobart is currently writing for Verso Books on recent challenges to the status quo in the Spanish state. Please support his related crowdfunding campaign.