Can Podemos and Its Allies Save Spanish Democracy?

Can Podemos and Its Allies Save Spanish Democracy?

Can Podemos and Its Allies Save Spanish Democracy?

They’re offering a responsible alternative to the two sets of flag-wavers on the question of independence for Catalonia.


MadridHalfway between Barcelona and Madrid by high-speed train, the city of Zaragoza proved for one day last month how simple a solution to the crisis in Catalonia should really be.

In a last-gasp effort to prevent further division and possible clashes between voters and police in Catalonia, the city, capital of the autonomous community of Aragon, hosted a multiparty conference a week before Catalonia’s illegal referendum on independence. Neither of the traditional parties—Mariano Rajoy’s governing conservative People’s Party (PP) and the Socialists (PSOE)—was present. Nor was the separatist group that now heads the Catalan government and its bid for independence from Spain. Of the large parliamentary groups, only the new-left alternative Podemos, the driving force behind the conference, attended.

Nevertheless, the participants, a wide range of progressive regional political alliances and coalitions, represent a quiet, democratic, and plurinational Spain, concealed by the blazing red-and-yellow Spanish flag that has been draped from thousands of balconies since the improvised October 1 plebiscite and the violent scenes that accompanied it. The Zaragoza Declaration, barely covered in the media, might now prove the only alternative to permanent strife, as the Catalan crisis deepens.

The parties in attendance included Unidos Podemos, the alliance of the old-left Izquierda Unida (United Left) and Podemos that ran with mixed results in most of Spain in the last general elections, and Catalunya en Comú, their counterpart in Catalonia. The Basque nationalists were there, along with the pro-separatist Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana). Coalició Compromís, the left coalition that governs the Valencia region, attended, as did two Galician nationalist groups and the nationalist Geroa Bai, from the Pyrenean region of Navarre.

Also present were the Podemos-supported platforms that hold power in most of Spain’s large cities, including Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, A Coruña, Palma, and Cádiz. The charismatic women mayors of Madrid and Barcelona, respectively Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau, were both represented, as of course was Zaragoza Mayor Pedro Santisteve, an independent who won the city elections in 2015 with the support of Podemos in a municipality that is traditionally deeply conservative.

These new regional coalitions nurtured by the Podemos leadership over the past two years not only govern Spain’s biggest cities but have sent more than 90 of 350 deputies to the Spanish Parliament, representing 6.5 million votes—nearly a fifth of the Spanish electorate. They are what Enric Juliana, political commentator of the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia, calls “the Others”—those who are sympathetic to a referendum in Catalonia “without going into any further details about self-determination.” While less than half of Catalan citizens want independence, 84 percent now support a referendum.

The most striking feature of the Zaragoza conference was that it included Catalan, Basque, and Galician separatists alongside defenders of a Spanish federal republic. Esquerra Republicana leader Oriol Junqueras, who is at the forefront of Catalonia’s now-desperate attempts to declare independence, supported the initiative. So too did Colau and Carmena, both leftists who prefer a plurinational republic over the breakup of Spain. What united the participants was a commitment to the Catalans’ democratic right to decide whether to stay within the Spanish state or leave. The Zaragoza Declaration urged the Spanish government to enter into dialogue with Catalonia and agree to hold a referendum on independence, and said the Rajoy government’s policy of “exception and repression” should cease, since “the rule of law in a democracy must guarantee the right of free expression to the citizens.”

At a moment of extreme radicalization over Catalonia, Podemos—so often parodied as the extremist left by the Spanish media—is cleverly using the Catalan question to offer a responsible, democratic alternative to the two sets of flag-wavers. “The only parties with which the Catalan separatists say they can hold talks were all in Zaragoza,” said Juan Carlos Monedero, one of the founders of Podemos and a key figure in the Zaragoza Declaration, in an interview last week. “The separatists see Spain as a Civil Guard barracks, full of bishops and folkloric costumes,” he said, referring to the formerly Franco-ist military police and other aspects of the Franco dictatorship. “They got it right on the Spain the PP represents. But Podemos is Spanish, and we support a referendum,” he added.

A week after the Zaragoza conference, 30,000 members of the National Police and paramilitary Civil Guard landed in Barcelona from their barracks on the trans-Mediterranean ferries moored in the harbor and beat up hundreds of citizens trying to vote in the illegal plebiscite. Truncheons were raised, boots were stamped, and rubber bullets were fired. Nearly 900 people were injured. In subsequent days, tens of thousands of military-clad Spanish police occupied the streets of Catalan towns and cities, while Catalonia’s autonomous police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, looked on in their pink banded caps like a ceremonial guard. Never before, not even in Greece, has the brute force of the state been so graphically deployed to sweep aside the complexities of identity and class in a turbulent post-crisis Europe.

Despite the repression, more than 2 million people voted on October 1, 90 percent supporting independence. In a region of 7.5 million, though, this is clearly not enough to justify democratically a unilateral declaration of independence, although the UDI has not been definitely discarded by the Catalan government. But the voters’ tenacity, despite police violence, leaves one thing clear: Unless Madrid agrees to allow a proper referendum, we can expect mass civil disobedience and more police violence in Catalonia.

The Zaragoza Declaration was dismissed as an undemocratic sideshow by the PP government, which has turned Woodrow Wilson’s celebrated warning about the dangers of a constitutional straitjacket into an understatement. (“The Constitution was not made to fit us like a straitjacket,” Wilson said. “In its elasticity lies its chief greatness.”) For Rajoy, Spain’s 1978 Constitution is now a set of handcuffs, as separatists in the elected Catalan Parliament and government are rounded up and charged with sedition.

The mainstream media of Madrid are no more flexible in their interpretation of a constitutionally “non-dividable” Spain. “Zaragoza is a deceitful declaration; no independence referendum can be held, because there is no right to self-determination in the Constitution,” wrote Javier Ayuso in El País, as if the Constitution were carved onto unchangeable stone tablet. The Spanish king, Philip VI, hurriedly ushered in three years ago to rescue the monarchy’s tattered credibility after his father Juan Carlos’s abdication, is no less dogmatic. In his speech last week, he shocked moderates in Catalonia by making no concessions at all to the need for dialogue.

Huge demonstrations this past weekend in Madrid and Barcelona by both Spanish and Catalan supporters of Spanish unity may have strengthened Rajoy’s belief that there are votes to be won by ignoring those who defend the Catalans’ right to decide. Yet after the extraordinary events of the past few days, the Zaragoza Declaration may be the only way forward if serious civil strife is to be avoided. This was certainly the feeling during rallies held on Saturday, when tens of thousands of white-clad demonstrators called for dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona. Podemos and its Zaragoza Declaration allies are now the closest parties to this constituency. Given that successive polls show at least eight out of ten residents of Catalonia support a referendum, it’s logical to assume that many of those who filled the streets of Barcelona on Sunday to oppose independence support one too.

The glaring absence in the Zaragoza Declaration are the Socialists, once defenders of a modern plurinational state but now opportunistically wedded to their shrinking base, increasingly concentrated in anti-Catalan Andalusia. Whereas Podemos has bravely chosen to support a referendum—jeopardizing its support in the rest of Spain—and condemn the PP government’s repression, the Socialist party’s historic leaders, Alfonso Guerra and Felipe González—both from Andalusia—have actually criticized the PP government for being soft on the separatists. Pedro Sánchez’s victory this year in the Socialist primaries against Andalusian president Susana Díaz had raised some hopes that the Socialists might move closer to Podemos and what has come to be called “the right to decide.” But most consider this less likely now, after the king’s intransigent speech last week. Sánchez unfairly accused Podemos of “mimicking nationalisms and fragmenting sovereignties,” apparently unaware that the Socialists’ denial of Catalonia’s right to decide is the real recipe for fragmentation and violence.

The other missing party in Zaragoza was the Catalan left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), which has abandoned any hopes for a Madrid-approved referendum and supports a unilateral declaration of independence, despite the lack of a democratic mandate. CUP is an eloquent and passionate advocate of Catalan independence as a means to radically restructure Catalan society in favor of public ownership, an end to austerity, and workers’ and social rights. Its members argue that, once freed from the shackles of the Spanish state—never truly democratized after Franco’s 1975 death—Catalonia could become a truly democratic republic. 

And, just as occurred in Scotland, the campaign for the right to decide has clearly pulled the independence movement to the left. Colau and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias defend a radical reform of the Spanish state and a revamped Constitution to give greater autonomy to Catalonia and create a heavily decentralized plurinational Spain. Dismay on the left at the king’s speech has brought republicanism to the fore too, a subject avoided in previous years by the Podemos leadership, unlike its coalition partners, including the Communist Party, in Unidos Podemos. As Catalonia’s civil disobedience heightens, these proposals may cease to appear dangerously radical, and could become a moderate alternative to the burgeoning nationalisms in Spain and Catalonia.

“CUP is not so interested in taking power but rather in organizing resistance. That’s OK, but Podemos wants to govern in order to give Catalonia the right to decide,” said Monedero, who was a mastermind of the Podemos bid in recent years to replicate the success of the Latin American left. Podemos and the Zaragoza Declaration urge the Catalan independence movement to seek allies and take the struggle for the right to decide to the rest of Spain.

The surprising presence in Zaragoza of Esquerra Republicana, the other left pro-independence party of Catalonia, probably now the region’s most popular party, suggests that may be possible. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, of the conservative Catalan European Democratic Party (PdeCAT, formerly Convergència), supported a unilateral declaration of independence, or UDI, immediately after last Sunday’s events, no doubt aware that Madrid would then dissolve all Catalan autonomous institutions and thus kindle even more fury in the street, which he sees as the only weapon to wield against the intransigent Spanish state. But the flight from Catalonia of CaixaBank and Banco Sabadell, which have relocated their HQs to, respectively, Valencia and Alicante, along with the departure of other Barcelona-based corporations, may have changed his mind. Puigdemont, after all, along with former president Artur Mas, used to represent the more pro-business wing of the independence movement.

So where can things go from here? Almost certainly toward further civil unrest and greater Spanish police presence in Catalonia. The Catalans’ reputation for pragmatic seny (level-headedness) may now be giving way, after years of frustration at the PP’s intransigence, to a second reputed psycho-national characteristic, which surfaces periodically throughout history in Barcelona: la rauxa (rage). Whether UDI takes place or not, the likely result will be new elections in Catalonia.

This could be the Zaragoza Declarations’s first opportunity. Ada Colau, the most able left political leader in Spain, maybe Europe, at the moment, may be able to build a successful campaign around the declaration and the need to forge political alliances between the separatists and the Podemos-led left to win power in Spain as a whole and so achieve the right to decide. Oriol Junqueras’s separatist Esquerra Republicana could conceivably enter government in Catalonia with Colau’s group if it commits to maintaining the campaign of civil disobedience and protest in support of a referendum. 

But the real battle for Catalonia will be waged in the next Spanish elections. Rajoy does not have an overall majority and depends on the center-right Ciudadanos (fiercely opposed to a Catalan referendum) and the Basque nationalists for support. If the Basques choose to bring Rajoy’s government down, the lines will be set for an election that—more than any since the late 1970s after Franco’s death—will determine the future of Spain. 

On the one hand, the PP-led right, with Ciudadanos firmly behind it, will defend the rule of law and the continued subjugation of the Catalan separatist rebellion. On the other, the Zaragoza parties, led by Podemos, will commit to defending democracy though radical constitutional reform—maybe even the end of the monarchy, which is less and less popular among Spanish youth—and a Catalan referendum. The Socialists will oscillate ineffectually between the two. Sadly, the odds are that the PP’s Spanish nationalist card will prevail. But only “the Others,” united in Zaragoza, offer a solution.

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