More than three years after shocking scenes flashed around the world on 1 October 2017, when elaborately kitted Spanish riot police imported from all corners of the state by the central government in Madrid emulated Putin's boys, indiscriminately beating down voters peacefully lined up to cast ballots in a constitutionally contentious referendum, Catalan voters will go to the polls on Sunday 14 February to choose a fresh devolved parliament and government.
In the intervening years, much has happened but little has changed. Quite how little will in part be determined by the outcome of this election, held with Spain in the grip of the pandemic producing death rates per head worse than France and Germany but better than Belgium, Portugal, Italy, USA and the UK.
After the police intervention, for which, despite two lengthy, extremely high-profile trials in Madrid (first of 12 Catalan activists and politicians and subsequently of the deposed head of the Catalan police), no person, group or organ of government has yet been identified as having given the order to attack innocent voters, events developed at breakneck speed.
The Catalan government 'made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence' on 10 October in one breath; and suspended its operation in the next. Within a week, the Spanish judiciary, which along with the armed forces is a bastion of pre-democratic mores, had remanded in custody two prominent non-elected grassroots activists from the independence movement, and on 27 October, the Catalan parliament, most unionist MPs having abandoned the session, voted to lift the previous UDI-suspension decision.
The Madrid government reacted within hours by suspending the Catalan government and parliament, taking full direct control of Catalonia and calling fresh elections to the devolved Catalan parliament on 21 December. These elections were accepted and contested by all sides amongst the pro-independence Catalan parties who, only a few days previously, had asserted that the Spanish PM Rajoy was the leader of a foreign government in a foreign country.
In the next two months, Spanish justice again intervened and all members of the deposed Catalan government and several other members of the parliament, including the Speaker, were arraigned on individual accusations permed individually from the trio of rebellion, sedition and misappropriation of public funds, and ordered to appear before an examining magistrate in Madrid. Whilst the majority took the Spanish TGV to Madrid and were almost all remanded in custody, a minority including deposed PM Puigdemont and St Andrews University professor Clara Ponsati upped sticks and moved to Belgium where they surrendered voluntarily to the Belgian judiciary to answer to a European Arrest Warrant.
Hopes were obviously high in Madrid that the new parliament would be less independence-minded than the former one, but no such thing happened. Although the iconically unionist Ciudadanos Party won the largest number of seats, the three pro-independence parties, Junts, ERC and CUP, secured a narrow pro-independence in the Christmas 2017 poll.
The vast majority of the group of politicians who had travelled to Madrid were subsequently found guilty on all counts and sentenced to heavy terms of imprisonment – in the worst case 13 years. However, even this prisoner has within the last few days obtained a provisional release from prison in the day-time to undertake public service work and also spends all weekend at home. The likelihood of a successful appeal by the prosecutors against this wholly routine rehabilitation is, however, very high.
The fate of the politicians who fled to Brussels was, exile apart, much less traumatic. Only one, Puigdemont, has spent a few days in custody; specifically on remand in a German regional prison in Schleswig Holstein after he was arrested at a motorway service station there. The German judiciary threw out the charges of rebellion and sedition, stating that there was no objective evidence from Spanish prosecutors to sustain them, and offered to send Puigdemont back to Spain only on the relatively minor financial charge. The Spanish judiciary reacted to this decision, correctly perceived as a major slight, though also perceived as unjustified, by withdrawing the international warrant.
A much more recent decision by the Belgian High Court on the same three charges for a less prominent Catalan politician was still more unpalatable for Spain. Where the Germans had only struck down the two main charges, the Belgians rejected all three. A ruling which evidently calls into question the objectivity of the Spanish legal system in a highly political case such as this.
Not only did the Belgians assert that the Spanish examining magistrates had failed to apply Spanish law correctly by arraigning the politicians before a national court in Madrid when a regional court in Catalonia was the appropriate one (an argument advanced unsuccessfully by defence lawyers at the start of the main trial in Madrid), they also explicitly stated that had they sent the accused back to Spain, he would have been at serious risk of being denied a fair trial.
Belgian procedures allow for one final appeal against the court which made this ruling. But the Spanish authorities, having digested the full text, declined to do so.
The Christmas 2017 election resulted in a 135 member parliament composed of Junts 34, ERC 32, CUP 4, for a total of 70 pro-independence seats. The other parties, all committed to the union were Ciudadanos 37, PSC/PSOE 17, Podemos 8, PP 3; in total 65 viz one less than Junts and ERC. At once, the two major independence parties agreed to form a government, with grudging support from CUP. The first step was the election of a PM but immediately all were problems since many of the 66 elected deputies were members of the recently sacked government either on remand in Madrid or in exile in Brussels. This greatly hindered the speedy formation of a government.
Early attempts to elect a new PM failed when both Puigdemont and then second choice Sànchez were blocked by a series of judicial decisions in Madrid of varying democratic provenance. On the third attempt, CUP, displaying one of its periodic fits of doctrinal scrupulosity, refused to support the candidate, Jordi Turull. This mattered since not all 66 deputies from ERC and Junts were free to attend. Spanish parliamentary rules, operative in Catalonia, allow a losing candidate for PM to go to a second round of voting after 48 hours with a lower technical threshold for success. But this constitutional nicety was shattered when, the day after the first vote, an examining magistrate in Madrid placed Senyor Turull swiftly and firmly behind bars.
By now it was May 2018. Early that month, Quim Torra, a hitherto largely unknown MP for Junts with a broadly technocratic background, was elected PM. But it was not till the end of the month that he finally formed his government. By 29 May, five months and a week after polling day, the Spanish government finally restored full devolved powers to Catalonia.
The judicial shenanigans between Madrid and Barcelona which had so delayed the formation of a government were trumped when, early in June, following the finding of a court that Spanish PM Rajoy, who had given evidence in a case they were hearing 'was not a credible witness', the Spanish Cortes passed a vote of no confidence in him, replacing him, as the constitution dictates, with a minority government headed by PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez. Here, the two partners in the Catalan coalition government split; ERC supporting Sánchez and Junts voting against. At that, the die was cast for the newly formed Catalan administration, assailed from outside by the Spanish judiciary and the Spanish Government but fatally weakened on the inside, as evidenced by the split vote and by a lack of any shared strategy for governing, confronting Madrid or consolidating the path to independence.
Whilst both governing parties in the Catalan coalition had apparently owned the Keystone Cops-style declarations of UDI in October 2017, equally, mid-2018 showed an evident divergence in plotting a way forward which is again evident in the muted campaigns for next Sunday's election. Given that, objectively, the best answer then to the question of finding a viable path to independence was 'given the destination I wouldn't choose to start from here with most of the last government either in exile or in jail', significant problems were inevitable.
In a phrase, ERC favoured 'negotiation and engagement with PSOE who are in government', without ever admitting that this made any hope of independence in the foreseeable future non-existent, whilst Junts favoured 'continued intelligent opposition' to the Madrid government without ever clarifying what this amounts to or how it will hasten independence.
ERC's strategy yielded scant fruits. PM Sánchez agreed to set up a joint inter-governmental liaison committee between Madrid and Barcelona to negotiate the future relationship. To date, it has only held one meeting in 20 months. An outcome which would certainly not have surprised Harold Wilson. Yet, in return, ERC as well as voting PSOE into power also provided decisive support for the 2021 PSOE/Podemos budget which, given precedent, will guarantee the Madrid government stays in power till at least the end of its term in autumn 2023. So long as multiple tensions in that particular loveless political marriage do not boil over, that is.
As for Junts, their candidate and PM Torra was generally seen as a lackluster appointment, ever beholden to Puigdemont in Brussels who made all major decisions. By early 2020, Torra himself admitted that the Catalan coalition had run out of steam.
Then came COVID-19.
The current election is timed well before the natural term for the 2017 government ends at Christmas 2021. This is down to a court ruling barring Torra from continuing as PM due to having delayed implementing an order to remove a banner from the front of Government HQ during the Spanish general election in autumn 2019. By all accounts, this was a conscious suicide step by Torra since the inevitability of being barred from office by the courts was self evident at the time. In response, both ERC and Junts refused to form a new government and then after a fixed time, new elections were a statutory obligation, with 14 February being the date assigned in keeping with legal norms.
Semi-judicial interference in elections in Catalonia is rife. Only last week, a tribunal ordered the town council of Ripoll to remove a banner clearly at odds with the political neutrality required. This particular illegal banner displayed one single word: 'Democràcia'.
Due to the levels of COVID-19 in Catalonia, with a peak expected around 14 February, talks involving all parties in the current parliament were held in mid-January and most surprisingly unanimous agreement was reached to postpone the elections. The vast majority of parties agreed on late May as the new date, though PSOE/PSC preferred mid-March. An earlier decision by Spanish PM Sánchez to seize on the positive polling figures for Catalan-born Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa as a reason to parachute him into the Catalan elections, despite the national crisis he was turning his back on, was no doubt of considerable weight in this preferred date as several months away from the media spotlight were not perceived as advantageous for Illa. The Generalitat duly decreed a postponement till late May which inevitably the courts ruled on, loudly proclaiming 'we see no virus problems', and so next Sunday was restored as election date.
In a much delayed second round of French municipal elections last June, participation was down by 12% compared to the equivalent in 2014. The Portuguese Presidential elections in 2021 had a drop of 4.6% compared to the previous turnout. The outlook for Catalonia on Sunday is impossible to predict. Registration for postal votes has rocketed from roughly 80,000 in 2017 to around 285,000 in a country where the postal service is not known for its efficiency.
In Spain, polling stations are manned by citizens chosen at random and obliged to participate under pain of sanction, economic or prison, or both. A record 25% of chosen citizens have already appealed against their designation as poll supervisors and currently these appeals are being decided. Fresh designations up to late on Friday 12 February have been mooted as a reasonable solution by the judicial authorities involved, though how any chosen supervisor can exercise his/her right to appeal in these circumstances is not mentioned.
One case highlighted in the media is of a cancer patient due to undergo chemotherapy on 11 February and down for duty on the 14th. His appeal was rejected. His dilemma is evident. Yet the electoral administrators claim that 99% of polling stations will certainly operate. Despite the gung-ho attitude of the administration, many medical experts are against the poll taking place at current levels of infection.
But the campaign to date has been exceedingly lackluster and the first week only produced two moments of interest: first when Laura Borràs for Junts threatened to make good the UDI which anoraks in the independence movement claim is extant were she to win, and then, much more prosaically, when Salvador Illa asserted that he would cut his own salary by 30% if elected. In the latter case, voters noted that the hair shirt on offer was strictly for the candidate's own use without even a hint of cabinet ministers or the many spad-equivalents eschewing designer outfits. In the former case, the fact that no such move had been mooted in the three years since Christmas 2017 when her party led the Catalan government was immediately registered.
The only new element in the current situation on Sunday is the presence of Vox, an extreme right-wing offshoot of the Partido Popular who have made their mark in all Spanish elections recently. Polls indicate they will do well and several seats seem guaranteed, at the expense both of Ciudadanos, predicted to lose heavily to Vox and to PSOE/PSC, and of PP. The real battle is the existential one between those for independence and those against. ERC has, at times, appeared to dally with the idea of again forming a left-wing government in Catalonia along with PSOE/PSC and Podemos, which would inevitably lead to indignant accusations of selling out on independence. But many campaign declarations appear to rule this out.
Taking these assurances at face value, should the majority continue to reside with the pro-independence parties, unless the near-moribund ERC inspired negotiation commission with Madrid makes real progress, four more years of impasse seems guaranteed. If the pro-unionist bloc wins, with the pro-independence parties licking their wounds and finally, Belgian and the German rulings in hand, having their day in EU courts, then the future of Catalan politics and of Catalonia is even harder to predict.
Jim Scott is a retired Glasgow-born teacher who spent most of his career in England. He first visited Spain in 1973 and has been resident in a 'Catalan heartland' since 2005