Catalans will be going back to the polls three years after the independence referendum on 1 October 2017, two presidents later, and with a pro-independence political generation either in jail or exiled. Both sides have taken stock of the last years in politics, but it has been an uneven review, with Catalonia being much more self-critical than Spain, where the “dirty war” waged by the Rajoy administration has only been exposed thanks to a retribution-seeking police officer, not a willingness to understand or progress towards a realistic diagnosis that helps to assess how the lack of a response to the Catalan crisis has eroded the standards of Spanish democracy.
Spain’s true underlying problem today is the way in which the degradation of the political system has been accepted due to the inability to embrace change. While Catalonia’s independence bid exposed the Spanish government’s inability to handle a major institutional crisis, which they chose to leave in the hands of the courts of law, the embarrassing flight of king Juan Carlos and the mismanagement of the covid pandemic have accentuated the feeling that an era is coming to an end. In fact, the political episode of the imperative partial lockdown on the Madrid region —with all the pandemic management indicators through the roof— has shown that Madrid is an anomaly within Spain and that the pseudo-federal mechanisms of a country which some regarded as the most de-centralised in Europe are but an illusion. The Partido Popular remains entrenched in nationalist rhetoric and its opposition to the country’s PSOE-Podemos coalition government is one of no holds barred, which no longer allows them to sustain the fiction —held at least until now— that Spain’s territorial organisation might allow for a federation-like system.
As Spain and Catalonia are immersed in a deep recession without the political will that would promote structural, stable change, Catalonia has experienced the umpteenth institutional humiliation, albeit without much epic. President Torra’s removal from office —following his disqualification by Spain’s Supreme Court— has left us a picture to be added to the list of historic grievances, but Catalan society has exhibited no epic and it appears to have fallen into some sort of defeat routine.
Abandoning the Constitution
A caretaker government will be handling Catalonia’s affairs over the next five months. President Torra, who spurned the usefulness of the regional government as he stepped down, has made it clear that the current administration strikes him as irrelevant compared to the dream. That is the question now. Should the February elections be a plebiscite for JxCat? A plebiscite on what, exactly? How will the result be implemented, if they win? What will happen, if they don’t?
The matter of the plebiscite arrives as the public opinion is focused on either the right-left axis or the day-to-day running of the administration. Supporters of preserving the institution will be better positioned to woo voters, if we are to believe the latest figures from CEO, the Catalan government pollster that surveys the public’s key concerns. 56.6 per cent of respondents believe the Catalan government should focus on managing the public services which it is entrusted with, whereas 39.9 per cent feel that resolving the conflict with Spain should be the main priority. This indicates a U-turn from previous surveys. When the CEO asked about the same issues in 2019, 56 per cent said that resolving the political conflict ought to be the priority, with only 36.8 per cent who felt that focusing on the day-to-day running of affairs was a more pressing matter.
So this is the question now: running the government or a new plebiscite? And, considering the experience of 27 October 2017 [when independence was formally declared], how would the plebiscite result be implemented?
Catalans will be going to the polls on 14 February and now is the time to lay down the policies and encourage voters to cast their ballot. Those policies must go beyond symbols and an appeal to emotions. They must get politics working for Catalans and provide specific answers at such a critical time in people’s lives.
The Catalonia of 3 October
The vote on 1 October 2017 was a historic moment. It was a collective effort that did not achieve the minimum turnout to be legally binding and recognised internationally. It is a symbol of the determination of the secessionist camp, largely due to the collective dignity exhibited in the reaction to the police brutality. 1 October 2017 became a remarkable act of affirmation and vindication, but the majority on that day is as important as the majority on 3 October 2017 [the day of the general strike]. The mandate of 1 of October cannot be exercised without including the strength of the majority on 3 October, the people who denounced the weakness of Spanish democracy that manifested itself in the police brutality and the king’s biased tv address. The mandate of 3 October was wasted by the internal competition within the pro-independence camp, which climaxed on 27 October. Three years have not gone by in vain for the general public.