The powerful grassroots civil society organisation Catalan National Assembly (ANC) has started to ponder the sort of event that they might stage on September 11, Catalonia’s National Day, as well as on October 1, the first anniversary of the self-determination referendum. While every September 11 sets the tone for the new political year after the summer break, this year it will do so even more. The reason is that Catalonia is still bogged down by a great deal of political dithering in the wake of the proclamation of the Republic in October 2017, the suspension of its devolved powers through direct rule, the result of the elections on December 21 and the ensuing problems to form a coalition government that proved consistent with the people’s vote.
The unexpected government change in Madrid casts a greater shadow and more doubt, especially as to whether it will be able to engage in talks with Catalonia or not, and what the extent of those might be. For all that, the ANC and the Catalan political parties are more aware than ever that the demonstration on September 11 will set the tenor of a period during which there will be four opportunities to implement the Republic. If the rally on Catalonia’s National Day is massive and the Catalan people send a clear message about their will to forge ahead, what president Torra has referred to as “opportunities” will begin to present themselves. Otherwise, if September 11 is a failure, the Catalan government is unlikely to take any chances.
Either way, everybody is reluctant to use the phrase “road map”, as they realise that in autumn last year the political playbook of the secessionist camp was too rigid and out in the open.
First chance: the trial against Cataln leaders
Political tensions will likely peak in autumn and winter with the trial against Carme Forcadell (the Speaker of the House), vice president Junqueras, the ministers and the rest of the Catalan prisoners and, depending on the lead-up to it, it could easily burst the banks of mere anti-repressive solidarity.
Two factors will be crucial. Firstly, the Spanish government’s attitude. And secondly, the future of president Puigdemont and the exiled ministers in four different European countries.
Nobody is expecting grand gestures from the Spanish government, although the decisions and requests of the Attorney General might have a significant impact on the situation of the Catalan leaders who are currently held on remand. Obviously, moving them to a prison closer to Catalonia would give Spain’s socialist government a little breathing space. If they can’t even achieve that and the trial begins at the end of November or in December, with potentially very severe prison sentences, the people’s protest will be gigantic and the Catalan government might bring back the October declaration of independence on account of the gravity of the moment. More so if Germany, Scotland, Belgium and Switzerland eventually decide not to hand over Puigdemont and his ministers to the Spanish authorities.
If both conditions are met, Madrid and the EU will have a serious problem, as the Catalan people can’t possibly be expected to understand why Europe is doing nothing to stop the trial in Spain once up to four different European courts of law have dismissed the same charges brought against the exiled Catalan leaders.
That is why proponents of actions such as a general strike or the disruption of train and motorway services agree that the trial against the Catalan government will be the ideal time for a massive show of force that might rock the political boat in Catalonia, Spain and Europe.
Second chance: a possible snap election
Now that Madrid’s direct rule on Catalonia has been lifted, the Generalitat has regained the ability to set the political pace in Catalonia, particularly since it has the power to call a snap election or another referendum.
At any rate, this can’t happen before October 28, exactly one year after former Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy used direct rule to call the December elections in Catalonia. After October 28 2018, the Catalan government —specifically, president Torra— will be at liberty to use this instrument at any time in order to shake up the political scene.
The coalition parties in Catalonia are being very careful about this hypothetical decision, but they all agree that the results of December 21 were, on the whole, better for the unionist parties than they would be now, particularly in the case of Ciudadanos, whose popularity has taken a blow. If the socialist party are able to engage in serious talks, they might welcome a fresh election as an opportunity to redress the internal balance within the unionist bloc.
Yet the secessionist camp might entertain this possibility amid the uproar prompted by the trial as a great opportunity to obtain over 50 per cent of the popular vote for the Republic at the polls and, while at it, to resolve the problems inherent to the current make-up of the Catalan parliament. As several serving MPs are currently held in prison and not allowed to cast a vote in parliament, it will be exceedingly difficult for any legislation at all to be passed in the Catalan chamber this term. If Catalans rallied against the trials en masse and the process to implement the Republic was revived, fresh elections could obviously be used to legitimise the decisions of the government led by Torra and vice president Pere Aragonès.
Third chance: repeat the referendum on October 1
A variation on the previous move might be to repeat the October 1 referendum. The reason would be obvious: since Spain’s PP government banned the vote, now would be the time to give the PSOE their litmus test. What would the Spanish socialist party do? If Pedro Sánchez’s government were to react just like Rajoy’s, this would obviously have clear political consequences. However, Sánchez would get his chance if he accepted an independence vote in Catalonia as a starting point for the talks with the Catalan government, even if he insisted that the vote be non-binding or that a Republic were not installed immediately after a Yes win.
The convergence of a hypothetical second referendum combined with massive rallies —prompted by the trial— that extend beyond the boundaries of what the Spanish government is prepared to accept might ultimately trigger a new scenario that facilitates bringing back the democratic mandate arising from the original referendum and October’s declaration of independence.
Fourth chance: May 2019 local elections
Everything suggests that, after the summer break, political tensions will likely peak in autumn and early winter, around the time when the trial is due to start. But looking at the mid-term, there is another determining factor: the result of the local elections in 2019. In principle local polls are due to be held in May next year. For now all the pro-independence parties are going solo, avoiding any pacts or alliances. Only some initiatives such as Jordi Graupera’s in Barcelona city and other less well-known ones in significant municipalities endorse the idea that secessionist parties should run together and secure clear victories across Catalonia.
Due to the peculiar way in which mayors are elected in Spain, if Junts per Catalunya and ERC run separately and Ciudadanos manage to hold on to most of the voters who supported them in December, we could see the rise of a political counterbalance based on potential local governments run by the far-right party in most large cities. On December 21 Ciudadanos won the elections nearly in the entire larger metropolitan area of Barcelona and Tarragona, albeit with only 20 to 30 per cent of the vote. In Barcelona city, for instance, they garnered 23 per cent of the popular vote, whereas ERC, Junts per Catalunya and the CUP would have received 50 per cent of the ballots, had they run as a coalition. Tarragona city became one of Ciudadanos’ strongholds, with 34 per cent of the vote, with a combined 36 per cent for the pro-independence slates. In Lleida city Ciudadanos received 24 per cent of the vote while 45 per cent went to ERC and Junts per Catalunya (50 per cent when you add the CUP’s result). Would it make sense for a city such as Lleida, where 50 per cent of the electorate voted for a pro-independence party, to have a Ciudadanos mayor? Or for Girona city to be the only capital of a province governed by a secessionist council?
Needless to say, that kind of result would deal a hard blow to the independence process, precisely at a critical time. Therefore, it is hard to imagine that Catalonia’s pro-independence parties will overlook a warning of such magnitude, particularly if protests against the trial between November and early 2019 have brought Catalan politics back up to boiling point allowing for the definitive step towards establishing a Republic.
VilaWeb has spoken to sources within the political parties who have been very coy about what might end up happening, precisely for the reasons outlined above. For now, each party is making its own way, but they all realise that they can’t afford to make such a huge error. One possible solution might be to clinch a nation-wide deal in the municipalities where a Spanish nationalist mayor is a real possibility. The image being used to illustrate what a global victory might mean is as clear as it is inspirational: the 2019 local elections might be a new April 14 [when the Republic was proclaimed in 1931 after a victory in the local polls]. But for that to actually happen, the people will need to put a great deal of pressure on the political parties. Hence the importance of the rally on September 11 and the anniversary of the referendum, as well as everything that will happen as a result of the trial against the political leaders.