Catalonia: A new king with old rules

It might seem like the fall of Rajoy's government bodes well for Catalonia. Not so fast, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte

August 9, 2018 · 9 min read
Mariano Rajoy. Photo: Contando Estrelas

Are there are indications that the Spanish state is weakening on the question of Catalonia?  The venally corrupt Rajoy regime was kicked into the dustbin of history last month by a no confidence vote. It is tempting to think that the end of Rajoy’s conservative Partido Popular (PP) government means something for Catalonia.  After all, it was Rajoy who sent in the paramilitary police, who suspended the government and who locked up his opponents. Surely now that Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE government is in power – especially as it is held together by a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the left-wing Podemos – a resolution to the Catalonian conflict is now more likely.  

At the time of writing, the Sánchez government has made some symbolic gestures to de-escalate the conflict, including suggesting that a new devolution agreement might be on the cards.  However, he has said nothing about the continued detention of 9 political prisoners, or the many others in exile and awaiting trial for ‘rebellion’ and ‘sedition’. Neither has he offered a referendum on Catalonian self-determination free from police brutality, the only feasible way to reverse out of this cul-de-sac. None of those things are on the cards.

Up until now, PSOE has supported all of the repressive measures introduced by Rajoy, including the unilateral seizure of the Catalonia government, sending in the paramilitary police against the voters on 1st October 2017 and subsequently the imposition of a state of emergency under section 155 of the Spanish constitution. In this sense, PSOE have proven to be as much a part of the problem as the PP were.

Indeed, Sánchez’s cabinet appointments indicate that he is firmly on the side of Spanish authoritarianism. He appointed Josep Borrell as his Foreign Secretary. Borrell is a member of the old guard in the Labour Party who has been one of the most outspoken voices against pro-independence dissidents.  He called on Catalonia to be “disinfected before closing the wounds” and made jokes at the expense of the political prisoners. Two key appointments come straight from the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s notorious political court which was essentially left intact after the Franco regime.  This court is stuffed with political appointments and deals explicitly with issues of conflict deemed to be ‘political’.  It is the Audiencia Nacional that imprisoned the 9 political opponents of Spain and exiled the rest.  The Audiencia Nacional has also been condemned internationally for imprisoning Basque political leaders, and for convicting a group of activists who burned pictures of the Spanish king.

Those members of the Audiencia Nacional are Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Grande Marlaska and Justice Secretary Dolores Delgado who spent almost 30 years in the National Audience specialising in terrorism cases.  Delgado convicted political dissidents, including the Batasuna executive, and was a judge on a notorious miscarriage of justice in which 11 Pakistani men were falsely convicted of terrorism.  The latter spent 6 years in prison before they were finally released.

The personnel in this government therefore have an impeccable track record in political repression, and are therefore see no major problem with Spain continuing to hold political prisoners.  Those appointments are the strongest indication that the intense Spanish nationalism that has come to shape Madrid’s relationship with Catalonia is set to continue. And yet, even if Sánchez forced the release of the political prisoners and the return of the exiles (which he could easily do) this would only deal with the most visible aspects of the recent clampdown.

As we reported in Red Pepper in June, there is an on-going use of counter-terrorism, ‘rebellion’ and ‘sedition’ charges against the left.  Rebel musicians are still hounded: the rapper Valtonyc was forced to flee into exile to Brussels to avoid a sentence of three years of imprisonment for his anti-royalist lyrics. Another hip hop artist Pablo Hasel is currently facing trial for ‘hate speech’ against Monarchy.   A major art exhibition commenting on the Catalonian political prisoners “Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners,” by the artist Santiago Sierra was banned and removed by the authorities in Madrid. All of those actions are confirmed and ordered by the Audiencia Nacional and enforced by the Spanish national police.

The spectacle of police confiscating yellow banners ribbons and balloons from protestors, football fans and from human rights activists may well continue; yellow is the colour of Catalan independence.  This ‘banning’ of the colour yellow is one of the most extreme and preposterous manifestations of the state’s complete pulverisation of any discussion of the political prisoners in Catalonia. Indeed, the cultural clampdown on anyone who dares to speak of the political prisoners mirrors precisely the logic of the ’78 regime which officially erased the memory of Franco’s political prisoners and prohibited official discussion or recognition of Franco’s mass graves (the biggest of any 20th century regime with the exception of Cambodia).  Even now, the Spanish state actively works to oppose any efforts to record and recognise the bodies.  This is of particular significance since it was on Catalonian republicans that Franco sought his most bloody revenge after the Spanish civil war.  

There are likely to be some gestures by the Sanchez government that will allow the current government to distance itself from the legacy of Franco. The Dictator’s body may be removed from the Valle de los Caídos state monument, but there will still be no returning of the wealth and property stolen from the Republicans, or effort to force the corporations who used slaved labour to pay reparations, or indeed a more general process of memory, justice and reparation, 82 years after the Fascist coup d’etat.  PSOE have always remained loyal to the Spanish Royal family as the symbolic and real representation of Spanish nationalism. This is the same Monarchy that stood at Franco’s right hand and then when he died, welcomed his family into the fold with a hereditary title, the ‘Duchy of Franco’. More importantly, the entire structure of military, police, government and business elites were retained in the ‘transition.’  Those same elites are in place, and it is only at moments such as this (or indeed during the struggles in the Basque country) that they come into public view.

Pablo Casado, Rajoy’s replacement at the head of the PP is a sign that of hardening attitudes to Catalonia. This is the man who, as Rajoy’s Deputy, said “if Puigdemont declares independence from Spain, he may end up like Companys.”  Every Catalan knows that Companys was the Catalan President who was executed by Franco in 1940. With Casado at the head, there is a real danger that this kind of dog whistle politics could pull the PSOE government into a hardline position.  

At the same time, some commentators have noted that there may be a softening in policy on refugees. Yet there is clearly no intention to change immigration laws, to end immediate illegal deportations, or to close the notorious Centres of Immigrant Detention.

There is likely to be new agreements between the trade unions and the employers to guarantee some kind of ‘new deal’.  Yet, so far those negotiations reveal that it is unlikely that there will be any resolution to either austerity or the Catalonia conflict.  PSOE still supports the constitutional guarantee that the public debt will be paid before social spending can be allocated. In Catalonia, an important member of Spain’s largest trade union, UGT, is one of the 9 political prisoners (Dolors Bassa who was the Minister of Labour in the Puigdemont government).  The UGT is yet to use its new-found influence to fight for the release of one of its most prominent Catalonian members. And the two main trade unions still see themselves as a keystone of Spanish social stability.  


The presence of Podemos as a ‘supply and confidence’ partner in the PSOE government seems unlikely to force a significant change in any of those crucial areas of social conflict, and especially on the Catalonian conflict. In Catalonia as in the rest of Spain, Podem/Podemos have been cowed into silence on the clampdown, preferring a parliamentary strategy that seeks power in Madrid.  The wisdom of this strategy remains to be seen, but there are signs that its unholy alliance with PSOE is deeply unpopular amongst its support base. After all, it was the PSOE government that introduced the constitutional law on public debt that the mass protests of the Indignados, the precursor to the electoral rise of Podemos, fought so hard against.


It remains difficult to imagine how Podemos will sustain its participation in a government that locks up political prisoners and keeps them in exile, that treats left activists as terrorists, and keeps an unflinching commitment to the violent austerity policies that lie at the heart of this crisis.


After a huge general strike on the 3rd October 2017 organised to protest against the police violence at the referendum, King Felipe VI was the representative of the state chosen to appear on TV to announce Spain’s determination to stop the independence movement in its tracks. Such is the importance of the Monarchy to the unity of post-Franco Spain that as soon as the King had spoken everyone knew that no negotiation or compromise on independence would be possible.  This is a social order that PSOE has always supported and will continue to support. Since the majority of the Catalonian independence movement defines its motivation as anti-fascist and anti-Francoist, the legacy of Franco is likely to remain a dark cloud hanging over the current conflict.

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