As Spain’s Government Is Voted Out, Catalonia Continues Its Roller-Coaster Ride

As Spain’s Government Is Voted Out, Catalonia Continues Its Roller-Coaster Ride

As Spain’s Government Is Voted Out, Catalonia Continues Its Roller-Coaster Ride

The Socialist Pedro Sánchez will replace conservative Mariano Rajoy, amid a sea of corruption. But the Catalan conflict has sown deep divisions among those who just ousted Rajoy.  



Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister of Spain, spent eight hours holed up with his staff in a private section of a Madrid restaurant yesterday, playing hooky while the Parliament debated a vote of no confidence that, if passed, would replace him with Pedro Sánchez, the leader of Spain’s Socialist party. Rajoy had hurried out of Parliament a little past 1 pm, with the morning session still in full swing and his fate uncertain. By the time he stumbled out of the restaurant, at 10 pm, it was clear that the next day would be his last at the helm of the country. Earlier this morning, 180 out of 350 deputies voted to send him home.

His ouster, marking an end to seven years of conservative rule in Spain, follows a week of intense political activity that started last Thursday in Barcelona. In the early morning of May 24, around 500 agents of the financial-crime unit of Spain’s national police raided the offices of Barcelona’s provincial government. They seized hundreds of documents, arrested 29 people suspected of embezzling millions of euros of international aid, and, according to the frenzied Madrid media, finally revealed how the Catalan government had financed the independence referendum last October 1. Since October, Spain’s central government has revoked the region’s self-rule and dissolved the Catalan parliament, forcing new elections. The Spanish Supreme Court has similarly gone on the offensive, indicting 16 Catalan politicians and civil-society leaders for rebellion, sedition, and embezzlement. Nine have been in prison since then, awaiting trial. Seven others, including former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, have fled into exile.

By the afternoon of May 24, the headlines of Madrid’s newspapers had changed. Three judges from the National Criminal Court in Madrid issued a devastating, 1,687-page verdict on the Gürtel Case, the largest investigation of political corruption since Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s. The judges showed that Spain’s ruling conservative party, Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP), had long kept a set of shadow books logging millions of euros in corporate kickbacks that went to finance the party’s campaigns and line the pockets of its politicians. The court sentenced 29 people, including prominent party officials, to prison terms ranging from four to 51 years. It also slapped the party with a $300,000 fine. One week later, the results of the decade-long, but by no means isolated, probe convinced a majority of Spain’s Parliament to support a no-confidence vote.

The pendulum swing of May 24 is a microcosm of what has been happening in Spain this spring. Although the Catalan question has constantly been in the news, it has been frequently interrupted by other pressing political matters, which have often prompted massive civic protests but have yet to change the political equation in any fundamental way. In February, many thousands of retirees across Spain began several weeks of rallies decrying the government’s failure to increase pensions with inflation. In March, 5.3 million Spanish women participated in walkouts for International Women’s Day. And in April, tens of thousands took to the streets to challenge the woefully light verdict against five men in a gang-rape case.

All the while, Catalonia has been reeling from what has been the most intense nine months since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975. The December election, to the surprise of many, didn’t significantly change the balance of the Catalan parliament, leaving a pro-independence majority intact. But the devil was in the details. The rabidly anti-independence party, Ciudadanos (Citizens), expanded its share of the Catalan electoral pie to 25 percent. Once considered a business-friendly technocratic party, Ciudadanos in recent months has, like many right-wing parties elsewhere in Europe, capitalized on nationalism. Outflanking its conservative rivals to the right, it’s making inroads into working-class districts and among families fed up with the independence movement. According to recent polls, Ciudadanos is on its way to becoming the leading party in Spain.

Meanwhile, the polarization of political debate over Catalonia into pro- or anti-independence positions has hurt parties on the left, from the center-left Socialist party to Els Comuns, the Podemos-allied coalition of Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau. Colau, like many on the left, favors self-determination for Catalonia but is agnostic on independence. Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist leader who earlier today became Spain’s new prime minister, opposes self-determination. In fact, he has shifted his party rightward on the question of independence, although in yesterday’s no-confidence debate he sounded a more conciliatory tone toward the Basque and Catalan nationalists—who proceeded to support Sánchez in the vote.

The Spanish Supreme Court, for its part, has repeatedly refused to release the nine imprisoned Catalan politicians and civil-society leaders. What was originally a political conflict over the territorial organization of Spain has become, under the Rajoy administration, a court battle over whether working toward secession implies breaking Spain’s laws. By relegating a political conflict to the courts, many jurists claim, the attorney general and the Supreme Court have undermined both constitutional rights and the separation of powers in Spain. Tellingly, the court’s requests for extradition of the seven Catalan exiles—who reside in Germany, Scotland, Belgium, and Switzerland—have so far been embarrassingly unsuccessful. European judges have called out the basic errors of their Spanish colleagues and openly questioned whether the charges of sedition and violent rebellion are valid. (Unlike its Basque counterpart, the Catalan independence movement has consistently championed nonviolence.)

On May 14, almost five months after the December elections, the Catalan parliament finally managed to elect a president who was not indicted, imprisoned, or exiled. Quim Torra, a conservative pro-independence hard-liner and Puigdemont’s hand-picked successor, quickly formed a government and is waiting for the Spanish government to finally return self-rule to Catalonia. But Torra’s problems extend beyond parliamentary politics. “Quim Torra’s rhetoric about Spaniards is bigoted and dehumanizing,” the sociologist Carlos Delclós told us. As the director of a major cultural center in Barcelona, Torra wrote an article in 2012 in which he described those put off by expressions of Catalanism as “beasts in human form,” among other animalistic nouns. “Spaniards only know how to plunder,” he’s tweeted. “Maybe expressions like these are metaphorical,” Delclós said, “but in the current political context they are extremely hurtful.” Torra has since toned down his rhetoric.

The past nine months have provoked much reflection on the procés, shorthand for the political roadmap toward an independent Catalan republic. Bookstores in Barcelona and Madrid are chock-full of titles like The Conspiracy of the Irresponsibles, by the historian and public intellectual Jordi Amat. The story often told about today’s Catalan independence movement is that everything began in 2006, when Catalonia adopted a new statute that legally codified its status as a “nation,” not merely a “nationality.” Things ramped up in 2010, when Spain’s Constitutional Court, on an appeal by Rajoy’s PP, scratched key parts of that statute. The push for independence, the story goes, has been on the rise ever since.

Amat, an outspoken critic of the independence process, argues against this common wisdom. He lays the blame at the feet not of citizens but of “irresponsible” politicians, while also pointing to design flaws in the Spanish Constitution. For Amat, the groundwork for today’s impasse was laid much earlier (1996), involves a different region (the Basque Country), and a different kind of independence process (violent militant separatism). The different regional challenges to Spain’s constitutional makeup are interconnected, Amat argues. And that matters for figuring out how to address them.

When we spoke with Amat, he recalled the day of the referendum last October, which took place despite a prohibition from the Constitutional Court and despite thousands of riot police who were shipped in from all over Spain to prevent Catalan citizens from casting a ballot. “I had decided I wasn’t going to vote,” he said. “I thought the referendum wasn’t legitimate.” But at the last minute he changed his mind, went to the polling station, and got swept up despite himself.

“Knowing that my brother was volunteering as a presiding official, that my niece was handing out ballots, that some of my friends had been through moments of fear, made me think that abstaining was too easy and unfair,” he explained. “So I voted. The collective intensity was palpable. I could see that the people felt this was something unique. They were taking on a serious responsibility, accepting that they might get a beating because of it. That feeling of community, of brotherhood, was quite moving. Still, I left the station sad. In the end I wasn’t sure if I’d done the right thing.”

Another such book is the journalist Guillem Martínez’s 57 Days Aboard Tweety-Bird, which collects his almost daily chronicles on the Catalan independence process since September. (The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Looney Tunes–themed cruise ship that housed the Spanish police in the Barcelona harbor.) “The procés,” he writes in the introduction, has been, in the end, “a way to impose austerity” in Catalonia “without any political costs.” In person, Martínez was similarly clear-minded about what motivated certain sectors of Catalonia’s political class while, at the same time, recognizing the honest embrace of independence by a considerable minority of Catalans. The conflict with Madrid, he told us, bought the Catalan conservative party, Convergència, which has ruled Catalonia off-and-on for nearly 30 years and is today part of a governing coalition with Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left), a new lease on life at a moment when corruption scandals and massive budget cuts would have almost certainly provoked a backlash.

Meanwhile, the singular focus on independence—or, in Spain, on the specter of the country’s breakup—has shifted attention from much more pressing issues, from health care to education, from unemployment to income disparity. In practice, Martínez explained, the entire process has been an exercise in window dressing. Four years after Catalonia’s ruling party announced its roadmap toward independence, the region doesn’t seem to have moved any closer to becoming the prosperous, modern, and progressive Catalan republic that—according to the latest polls—close to half of the 7.5 million Catalans would like to see come about. The polarization, Martínez said, has benefited right-wing parties on both sides of the independence question.

The standstill at the political level contrasts rather sharply with the sustained levels of mass civic mobilization. “I’ve been going to big demonstrations for eight years now,” Susan DiGiacomo, an American anthropologist who teaches at a Catalan university and has long been involved with the independence movement, told us. “And we’re not demobilized,” she says. “You can still get hundreds if not thousands of people out in the street on a moment’s notice.”

This ability to mobilize was put on display during the October referendum. Gerard, who is 19, still tears up when he talks about that day, which he spent in his hometown 25 miles from Barcelona. (Wary of legal consequences, he asked that we not include his last name.) Like many voters, he got to his polling place—the town’s public library—early in the morning to help defend it from a possible police raid. When one of the volunteer election officials failed to show, he raised his hand without thinking twice about it and became the youngest official at the table.

“We were scared,” he told us. “The police had gotten to the polls in all the towns surrounding ours. We figured we’d be next. We’d seen the videos. All of us knew we might get a beating—but as officials, we knew we were also risking fines or jail time.” By late afternoon, when the lines of voters dropped off, they decided to call it a day and closed up shop. “We heard police were on their way. So we left through an emergency exit—I was in the middle carrying the ballot box, surrounded by 10 others—and hid in a friend’s house, where we finished counting the ballots. Later that night, when we walked into the town square with our ballot box to announce the results, we got a standing ovation from the whole town. I cried for 10 minutes.”

“One of the fascinating aspects of the social movement that the procés helped build is that people who would normally be depoliticized have taken on commitments that actually go beyond the slogans of the political elite,” says Amat. “That commitment is genuine. But I don’t think the politicians have been honest with those people. They didn’t tell them what a unilateral declaration of independence would entail. The people’s lack of political culture allowed them to genuinely, but naively, believe that the utopia can be realized.”

Gerard, young as he is, doesn’t feel duped. “Of course there’s a lot of disappointment, because at one point expectations ran very high. But deep down many of us knew the republic wasn’t going to happen overnight,” he said. “Eventually it will come, I’m certain of it, though maybe not next year or the next five years. After all, we’re up against a state that embodies the inheritance of the Franco dictatorship. The Spanish state is not just oppressive and corrupt—it’s toxic.”

The elites at the helm of Catalan nationalist parties now face another difficult choice. The vote of no confidence against Rajoy’s government that was proposed by the Socialist party passed today with support from Basque and Catalan nationalists, and Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist leader, has become Spain’s new PM. But the irony is as thick as the Gürtel verdict is long. The Socialists, who enthusiastically joined Rajoy in suspending Catalan self-rule last fall, now find themselves in the position of being criticized for receiving support from “those who want to see Spain destroyed.” The animosity is mutual. From his exile, former Catalan president Puigdemont initially called on his party’s deputies to abstain, arguing that a Socialist government would be as reluctant to negotiate with Catalonia as Rajoy’s has been. The Catalan conflict has sown deep divisions among those who just ousted Rajoy from power. With Rajoy gone, a dialogue over Catalonia’s place in Spain may be possible. But it’s hard to see the wounds of the past nine months healing anytime soon.

In fact, if yesterday’s debate is any indication, Ciudadanos will ramp up its hard-line Spanish nationalism with increasingly obvious authoritarian tinges. During yesterday’s debate, the party’s leader, Albert Rivera, openly threatened the Catalan Left Republicans. “Take advantage of the coming months to violate rights and freedoms,” he told them. “Because you know what’s going to happen? Very soon, Spaniards will say ‘enough!’ and [make sure] that the Constitution will also be upheld in Catalonia.”

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