Podemos: a cat among the pigeons in Catalonia

First published in Open Democracy on 22 December 2014

This year has seen two mass movements threaten to destabilize the Spanish political system, one pushing for a vote on Catalan independence and the other rallying behind Podemos, the new, anti-establishment party promising to revolutionize the country’s democracy. On Sunday, the two collided head on, with Pablo Iglesias making his first official appearance in Catalonia since he was elected as Secretary General of Podemos in November.

My view from the cheap seats

My view from the cheap seats

In a packed-to-the-rafters sports centre in the hills of the Barcelona suburbs, Iglesias was greeted with cries of ‘Sí se puede!’ and ‘Pablo Presidente!’ by a crowd swathed in purple Podemos merchandise. The event was highly staged (with home-made banners and republican flags discretely removed from the balconies before the cameras started to roll), but the excitement of the crowd was for real. Those who didn’t arrive early enough to get a seat gathered outside the building, straining to get a glimpse of the charismatic leader through the glass doors.

Not bad for a political project dreamed up less than a year ago in the political science faculty of Complutense University, 300 miles away in Madrid. Recent polls have shown Podemos topping voting intentions among Catalans in elections to the Spanish Congress, and coming a respectable third in elections to the Catalan Parliament.

However, as well as enthusiasm, the sudden explosion of Podemos on the Catalan political scene has generated a whirlwind of questions, doubts, and even outright panic in the region, particularly on the left of the pro-independence movement.

Podemos’ position on the Catalan question

In line with Podemos’ ‘democratizing’ discourse, senior members of the party’s leadership, including Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, as well as leading figures in Catalonia, have declared their support for the principle of Catalan self-determination. At the same time, they have said that they hope that Catalans would vote to stay in Spain in a hypothetical referendum. As moderate as it may seem, this position marks a radical departure from that of the two main parties in Spain, the Popular Party and the Socialist Party, both of which actively oppose holding a vote on the question of independence at all.

At the same time, it is clear that the self-determination of Catalonia is nowhere near the top of Podemos’ policy agenda. Their discourse is defined by their aggressive condemnation of political corruption and economic inequality. When the party’s candidates are obliged to address the issue of Catalan ‘sovereignty’ or the ‘right to decide’, as Iglesias was on Sunday, they invariably use the question as a launch pad to talk about ‘the right to decide about everything’ and the need to wrest back popular sovereignty over economic and social policy from the political and economic Establishment. Apart from anything else, supporting Catalan sovereignty is no vote winner in the rest of Spain; polls show that most Spanish people are against allowing Catalonia to hold an independence referendum.

As well as those who doubt the priority given by Podemos to the independence question, many Catalans question the sincerity of the party’s declared commitment to the ‘right to decide’. They point to similar resolutions that were made by the Spanish socialists at their party congress in 1974, only to be conveniently abandoned when they entered government in the 1980s. Aware of the political pressures that Podemos will face from the rest of Spain to maintain the union, many see a post-election U-turn on self-determination as inevitable.

What does Podemos mean for Catalan independence?

Even if we take Podemos at its word, the implications for the future of Catalonia are difficult to predict. According to Jordi Muñoz, researcher in political science at the University of Barcelona, Podemos represents ‘both a threat and an opportunity for the independence movement.’[1]

Podemos could, in theory, help the cause of Catalan independence. The two movements share many criticisms of the democratic deficiencies of the current Spanish political system, and thus are challenging a common foe in the the post-Franco regime. As Muñoz has argued, the independence movement has only benefited from the crisis in Spain, and Podemos is yet another force that is contributing to the weakening and destabilization of the country’s status quo. At the very least, if Podemos were to form a government, it would be difficult for it to be any less open to dialogue than the Popular or Socialist parties.

However, the hostility of the reaction to Podemos by many pro-independence Catalans suggests that the pro-independence camp is not so optimistic about the potential of Podemos to advance its goals. After all, the current Spanish government, led by Mariano Rajoy, has been described by commentators on both sides of the independence debate as a ‘factory’ of converts to the independence cause. Its legal challenges to Catalonia’s constitutional status as a nation within Spain, its aggressive anti-independence rhetoric, and its swingeing austerity policies have been a significant factor in the rise in support for a referendum on independence over the past four years. A Podemos government that treated Catalonia’s culture, language and national aspirations in a more conciliatory way and implemented progressive social policies may be able to slow or reverse the growth of support for independence on the Catalan left.

In this way, Podemos could also pose a profound challenge to one of the main arguments of pro-independence progressives: that Spain is impossible to reform from within. The slogan of the radical, grassroots Catalan party, CUP, is ‘independence to change everything’. Both CUP and other Catalan parties on the left have argued that the best, indeed the only, way to implement progressive economic and social policies in Catalonia is to establish an independent, secular republic with a progressive constitution. If Podemos is able to renew democracy in Spain, or even just convince people that it can, the push for secession will inevitably be deprived of some of its momentum.

PILTH: President I’d Like To Hug

In this context, it is hugely significant that the only promise Iglesias made in Barcelona yesterday was that Catalans wouldn’t see him ‘hugging Mariano Rajoy or Artur Mas’. This was a reference to the embrace between the CUP party leader, David Fernàndez and the head of the governing conservative party, Artur Mas, after the symbolic independence vote held on 9 November in defiance of its suspension by the Spanish Supreme Court.

hug david fernandez artur mas

The Hug

For those on the pro-independence right in Catalonia, the hug represented the success of the independence movement in putting aside partisan differences and maintaining a fragile alliance in pursuit of a common cause. For those on the pro-independence left, among whom David Fernàndez is regarded with deep affection, the hug was irrelevant to his progressive street-cred, if perhaps ill-judged. But for those on the left who are unconvinced of the radical potential of secession, the image of Fernàndez hugging Mas was symbolic of a political culture monopolized by the national question to the neglect of, or even as a deliberate distraction from, the current economic crisis and cuts to public services.

By directly attacking David Fernàndez in his characteristic confrontational style, Iglesias was positioning himself as the true revolutionary in contrast to a Catalan left willing to sacrifice social justice at the alter of independence. The move provoked outrage in the pro-indy Twittersphere, which immediately leapt to the defense of Fernàndez, but in many ways it was a shrewd move. Iglesias knows that he’s unlikely to win the support of CUP voters, or indeed of anyone for whom independence is the overriding priority. His task in Catalonia is to engage those who feel alienated by the independence debate and win the votes of those on the left who have been supporting independence as a means to an end, rather than for reasons of national identity. If he can convince them that Podemos can provide the change they are looking for, Catalonia may decide to give Spain one last chance.

[1] Muñoz, Jordi ‘Podemos ser independents?’, Sentit Critic, 27 November 2011 http://www.elcritic.cat/blogs/sentitcritic/2014/11/27/podemos-ser-independents/

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