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Podemos walks a tightrope on Catalonia

Photo by Rodrigo Jimenez/Alperphotos/ABACAPRESS.COM

Photo by Rodrigo Jimenez/Alperphotos/ABACAPRESS.COM

November 20, 2017   11 mins

This is part three of James Bloodworth’s series on Podemos. Part one examined its philosophical objectives and part two examined its electoral record.


When nationalist movements clash it can – for the left – resemble two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on. Flags, cultural miscellanea and the mythical ‘national soul’ are typically viewed with suspicion. They are a frivolous distraction from the real struggle, which for the left takes place between economic classes in what Marx called the “abode of production”. Political life is thus dominated by an economic rather than a territorial logic. Beneath the jingoism that characterises nationalist movements, it is a case of meet the new boss, same as the old bossalbeit with his own flag and football team. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

I arrived in Barcelona from Madrid in early September – just in time, as it happened, for the national day of Catalonia, which on the eleventh of every year commemorates the fall of the city during the War of Spanish Succession. This year, however, the day was marked by a demonstration of national will toward a specific end: the semi-autonomous region in north eastern Spain was gearing up for its unauthorised independence referendum on 1 October. If the region voted Yes, Catalonia’s President Carles Puigdemont was threatening to make a unilateral declaration of independence in the face of threats bellowed from Madrid.

For Podemos, the idea of Catalonian independence throws up its own challenge. The party has a significant body of support in both Catalonia and the Basque regions, including among secessionists. Any separation on the part of Catalonia would effectively see swathes of Podemos’ voter base marooned in a foreign territory.

But principle is also at stake. Full independence is anathema to many leftists within Podemos, who gravitate instinctively toward fraternal internationalism over petty nationalism. That said, the party does support the right of Catalans to hold a legal referendum – leading the bigger parties to portray Podemos as intent on ‘breaking up’ Spain.

It hadn’t been nationalist flags that I’d first noticed on arriving in Barcelona, but graffiti. About 100 metres down the street from my hotel in the Dreta de l’Eixample neighbourhood, the words ‘kill the tourist’ had been emblazoned on a doorway in blood-red paint. Barcelona is at the epicentre of a wave of anti-tourist sentiment that has recently hit other cities including San Sebastian and Valencia. A recent survey carried out by Barcelona city council found that the locals consider tourism to be the city’s second most serious problem after unemployment.

Wrestling your way through the hordes of inebriated stag parties on Las Ramblas of an evening, you do sometimes feel the urge to pull out your own can of paint and dab something colourfully offensive on the sidewalk. There is something almost profane about sated English revellers vomiting on cobbles a few blocks away from the modest Placa de George Orwell. But then I have been there and done that too, so to speak; and it was after all the anti-temperance Orwell who wrote approvingly in 1941 that the English have a tendency to “drink as much beer as their wages will permit”. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Nowadays Catalonia plays host to some 18 million tourists every year, and at least some of the local anger derives from the material inequalities generated by this influx of extranjeros. Buy-to-Let landlords are purchasing entire blocks of flats to lease via apps like Airbnb, and there is a sense it is driving up rents in the most desirable areas of the city. El Periodico reported in 2016 that apartment rents in the central part of town had increased by more than 10% between 2014 and 2016.

Many leftists within Podemos gravitate instinctively toward fraternal internationalism over petty nationalism. That said, the party does support the right of Catalans to hold a legal referendum – leading the bigger parties to portray Podemos as intent on ‘breaking up’ Spain.

Yet there is a degree of nationalist sentiment at work in the animosity directed at the tourists: a recent attack on a tourist bus near the Camp Nou football stadium was claimed by Arran Jovent, a group linked to Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), a left-wing pro-Catalan independence party. An Arran spokesperson told the BBC that it wanted to “destroy the system – and the tourist industry is part of that system”.

When I arrived in Barcelona a similar – if more subtle – attitude prevailed in even the quieter quarters of the city. Draped from the apartment blocks in the old town a patchwork of Catalan flags and banners loudly proclaimed ‘Si!’ and ‘Democracia!’. As in Britain, the economic grievances emanating from austerity have, in regions like Catalonia, been directed toward the central government – despite the fact that Puigdemont’s autonomous government in Catalonia has introduced its own programme of spending cuts. The referendum is at least partly a ‘Fote’t!’ (f*ck you) to Madrid, as one flag-waving young Catalan put it to me.

But a more miserly logic is also at play. Wealthy Catalonia contains around seven-and-a-half million people and accounts for about a fifth of Spain’s overall GDP. In a manner resembling those in Britain who complain semi-seriously of wishing to turn London into a mercantilist ‘city state’, some in Catalonia view yocal, rural Spain as a parasitical drain on prosperous Barcelona.

On Catalan day itself I picked up a taxi to the edge of town where Pablo Iglesias, the 38-year-old leader of Podemos, was billed to speak at a Catalunya in Comú rally. After several hours hanging around in the oppressive midday sun – the newspapers sold by the communist sects at these events make excellent protective hats once you master the art of folding them – Iglesias finally appeared on the stage.

A diminutive man with a ponytail and a beard who looks the archetypal university professor, Iglesias is nonetheless an impressive rhetorician. His voice was deeper than I was expecting and he spoke in a straightforward, authoritative style that had a hint of Hugo Chavez in its euphonic jabs. It hammered away at the listener like a fist striking a table, rising in intonation as Iglesias reached a point he wished to emphasise. From the small stage, the Podemos leader denounced the PP as a “corrupt political party”, and accused them of deploying the methods of “Francismo” in the days leading up to the referendum. But the message was of solidarity rather than separateness.

“We have to join forces to kick them out of government. We have to build an alternative majority, so finally Catalans can vote,” Iglesias thundered between spontaneous chants of ‘Si, se Podemos’ (Yes we can) from the assembled crowd of around 400 people. Iglesias also attacked the right-leaning government in Catalonia for its social policies.

Back in Madrid I had spent an hour at the Spanish Parliament talking to Ione Belarra, the Podemos MP for the Pamplona region in northern Spain. Elected to the Spanish parliament at the national elections of 2016, Belarra was scathing about Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) and its response to the nationalist provocations of the government in Catalonia.

“The principle problem here is the Popular Party. They have been playing deaf with the independence movement for the past six years, and now they pretend to be surprised by events,” she told me.

While the PP accepts a degree of self-determination for the regions, it has been able to win successive national elections with little support in places like Catalonia and the Basque region. There is thus little incentive for Madrid to make further concessions such as granting Catalans the right to hold a legal referendum.

There are 17 ‘autonomous communities’ in Spain, each with control over policies areas including education, the police and social security. While the arrangement seems to suit most people, nationalists on both sides have been attempting to tear up the existing order. A 2006 statute granted Catalonia further powers of autonomy; yet the move was reversed in 2010 after it was challenged in the courts by the PP. Rajoy argues that the current referendum is illegal under Spain’s 1978 constitution, which reaffirmed ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’. Yet the PP has rejected all attempts to reform the post-Franco constitution – a prerequisite to Catalonia holding a serious referendum.

A former journalist, the President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont governs with a slim majority and a minority of the popular vote based on regional elections which took place in 2015. A fervent secessionist, Puigdemont was the first Catalan President to refuse to swear an oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the King. He governs in coalition with several small left-wing nationalist parties.

“What we are defending on this issue is that a referendum has to be held, but it has to be held with guarantees for everyone,” Belarra tells me. “It has to be agreed upon by all parties, and it has to be recognised internationally. Otherwise there is no way of moving forward…Never mind which way they’re going to vote; we have to guarantee that they can do it.”


The Franco regime was opposed to any manifestation of autonomy on the part Spain’s nationalities. According to the Spain scholar Paul Preston, during the final days of the Civil War Franco’s rebel army waged a “deliberately ponderous war of annihilation through the Basque Country, Santander, Asturias, Aragon and Catalonia”- all the better to strike fear into potentially troublesome populations early on. The Franco regime subsequently banned the Catalan language and rescinded all regional powers granted by the fledgling republic. Celebrating Catalan day at all under Franco would invariably draw the unwelcome attention of the authorities.

On the eve of the celebrations I met up with Adriá Porta Caballé, an academic who previously worked for Podemos’ deputy leader and Political Secretary, Íñigo Errejón. Porta Caballé has since moved again to Barcelona to help start a Podemos-linked Catalan-based coalition called Catalunya en Comú (Catalonia in Common). Podemos has had a role in several electoral coalitions such as this, including En Marea in Galicia, En Comú Podem (a Barcelona-based project led by the Mayor Ada Colau), and Compromís in Valencia.

Founded in December 2016, Catalunya en Comú is led by 43-year-old university professor Xavier Domenech and supported by the mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau. The new party backs the Catalans’ right to hold an officially recognised referendum but, faithful to the left, the movement is broadly against independence – only around 20% of its members are secessionists.

“This is not going to be the referendum that the Catalan people need,” the bearded and bespectacled Porta Caballé tells me between drags on a cigarette.

Yet he calls the referendum a “legitimate mobilisation” – a reminder to the Spanish government of the existence of the “80 per cent of the Catalan people that want to have a referendum”.

While a majority of Catalans appear to support the notion of an official referendum, most polls over recent decades have found a majority of Catalans against a parting of ways with Spain. According to a June 2017 poll, 41% of Catalans were in favour of an independent state, compared to 49% who were against. Support for independence peaked at 57% in 2012. Interestingly, an analysis of polling data by the Atlantic found a strong correlation between support for independence and unemployment in Catalonia.

“In Podemos, we refer to the ’78 regime, which is the regime born of the constitution of 1978…which to us is a series of contracts made with the fear that maybe the dictatorship can come again,” Porta Caballé says.

The constitution describes regions like Catalonia as ‘nationalities’; yet it recognises only one nation.

“For us [this] is crucial…so you have something in between true recognition of nations and the centralist state organisation that we had before…It is evident I think to everybody [apart from the PP] that we cannot go back to the 1978 state.”

The extent to which a centralised state is fundamental to Spanish conservatism is apparent from any comparison with Britain. Porta Caballé tells me that he was “amazed” at the equable response of British Conservatives to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

“I mean, I know [David] Cameron was economically liberal, but at least I think you in Great Britain have a democratic right-[wing], so you have a right that is able to have [something] like the Scottish referendum without [Cameron] losing all the conservatives. This has never happened here because the right didn’t change I would say as much after dictatorship.”

Podemos is one of the leading electoral forces in both Catalonia and the Basque Country; the secession of either region would deliver a significant blow to the party’s electoral prospects.

Podemos has been accused by its opponents of having an ambiguous stance on Catalan independence due to its support for an official referendum. In the weeks leading up to 1 October, both the PP and Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) backed the police measures deployed by Madrid – enacted to prevent the rogue referendum from taking place. The crackdown has included raids on local newspapers, the seizing of millions of ballot papers, and, as the date of the referendum approached, a rescinding of Catalonia’s financial autonomy. 14 of Catalonia’s government officials have been detained by the Spanish authorities, while on the day of the vote itself, footage emerged of the Civil Guard using police batons and rubber bullets to bloody Catalans attempting to vote. Catalan officials reported that 800 people were injured during clashes with police. Under article 155 of the Spanish constitution, Madrid is able to intervene like this in the running of what is supposed to be an autonomous region.

Yet despite the threat of violence, 2.3 million Catalans managed to cast their votes, with a turnout of around 43%. Around 90% of those who marked their ballot papers backed independence.

In the immediate aftermath of 1st October both sides mobilised their supporters. On the day of the vote itself, crowds draped in the Catalan flag thronged the city’s squares and boulevards. A week later, on 8 October, thousands gathered in Barcelona waving the flag of Spain – a raucous reminder that a majority here are not ardent secessionists.

While Porta Caballé is adamant that this is “not going to legally be the referendum that the Catalan people need”, he says the job of Catalunya in Comú – and by extension Podemos – is to “represent the 80% of the Catalan people that want to have a referendum”:

“What you have from the Partido Popular since the start is a legalist approach to what’s happening. So they always say the constitution doesn’t approve of a referendum…They’re not doing the crucial job which is to say that maybe the best way to carry on and be united as a state is to be more permissive and to be more democratic in the recognition of different nationalities. That maybe such a belligerent reaction to any kind of national and autonomous expression is [a] worse [way]…to keep the country united.”

The left finds itself in an unusual position over Catalan independence, much as the British left did when Scotland held its referendum in 2014. For some, nationalist movements resurrect the penumbra of romantic grandeur that has slipped away from the wider socialist movement. During the lead up to the Scottish vote, leftist grandee Tariq Ali enthusiastically contrasted “dreary old England” with “intellectually liberating” Scotland, where nationalism was not really nationalism at all, but rather a social democratic movement whose “gaze is fixed on the Norwegian model”.

Ali, a former Maoist, embodies better than most the temperament of those who latch like wasps to a clod of jam anything which emits even the faintest whiff of ‘revolution’.

Yet Ali was something of an anachronism; a majority of the international left still look with suspicion on any strain of nationalism. The Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (the Barcelona-based anarcho-syndicalist trade union) perhaps captured the prevailing mood when it put out a statement in October declaring that, “while we firmly oppose repression from an increasingly authoritarian state and their fascist allies, we are in no way supportive of the nationalist agenda”. Both the Spanish and Catalan Socialist parties are similarly opposed to independence, as are most of those involved in Podemos.

It is perhaps paradoxical, then, that Podemos has been accused of siding with Catalan’s nationalists. The former PP Prime Minister José María Aznar has accused Podemos of attempting to “destroy the transition as an agreement and as a narrative of reconciliation among Spaniards”. Similarly, one of the conditions on which the Socialist Party has up to now rejected an electoral alliance with Podemos is on the basis that the smaller party wishes to “break-up Spain”.

Yet anyone looking for proof that Podemos’ careful positioning on regional independence is genuine – and that the new party does not wish to see Spain torn apart – need only look at results from recent elections. Podemos is one of the leading electoral forces in both Catalonia and the Basque Country; the secession of either region would deliver a significant blow to the party’s electoral prospects. No doubt Podemos’ support for a referendum on Catalan independence is itself responsible for some of the support the party has picked up in the region. But the notion that Podemos is actively seeking the break-up of Spain is conspiratorial nonsense. The party’s approach to self-determination is hardly novel, even on the left, and might be distilled into Lenin’s remark that “the unconditional recognition of the struggle for…self-determination in no way obliges us to support every demand for national self-determination”.

Put another way, one can in principle support the idea of a referendum without coming down definitely on one side.

Podemos’ position on Catalonian independence does in fact reflect that of Catalonia itself. Some 80% of the population are thought to favour a referendum; yet a slim majority appear to want to remain a part of Spain.

As things stand, both Spain and Catalonia wait. In a much-anticipated post-referendum statement on 10 October, Carles Puigdemont effectively kicked the can down the road. He did not, as some expected, make a declaration of independence; but he did say that Catalonia has a “mandate” to become a republic. In response, Mariano Rajoy announced that the central government had taken steps toward suspending home rule in Catalonia.

To outside observers the solution to the crisis seems straightforward enough: a more autonomous Catalonia situated within a properly federal and democratic Spain – provided, of course, that Catalonia votes to remain within Spain in a proper referendum. But few in the government can bring themselves to argue for it. Those who make such arguments – especially from a distance – fail to grasp the degree to which the unity of the Spanish state is a central ideological pillar of Mariano Rajoy’s conservatives. The ‘indivisibility’ of the country was central to Francoism and is far from peripheral to a contemporary Popular Party that has never fully disavowed its Francoist antecedents. Puigdemont’s apparent climbdown is probably based on the shrewd assumption that Madrid will continue to respond bull-headedly to even the more modest proposals emanating from Catalonia – further bolstering support for independence.

‘Our leaders never make mistakes’, bellowed Franco’s thugs in the 1930s, borrowing from the Italian fascist slogan ‘Il Duce sempre ha raggione’. If it wishes to avoid further acrimony and civil strife, Spain’s ruling Popular Party would do well to heed the words of another Italian, and embrace the more reflective conservatism of Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are,” Rajoy might reflect, “things will have to change”.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.


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