Spain got another taste of elections this week as Catalonia went to vote. The big issue was independence, and the result was a stalemate. Now, I know that most people don’t really care about national politics, even less about politics in other countries, so I can imagine that local politics in other countries doesn’t really arouse enthusiasm abroad. But Catalan independence is a big issue in Spain at the moment, so I’ll briefly bring you up to date on what’s happening before trying to analyse what this all means with respect to the democratic revolutionary movement in Spain.
Catalans have been periodically regurgitating their will to break away from Spain over the last few centuries, most recently in the late 19th century, then during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and lately these past few years. The reasons for the current outbreak are to be found in the rejection of parts of the region’s Autonomy Statute as ‘unconstitutional’ by the Spanish High Court in 2010. Most symbolically, the judges cancelled a reference to Catalonia being a ‘nation’, which sparked a lasting outcry all over the region. The economic crisis did the rest.
When you listen to Catalans speaking about the question you can clearly hear the echoes of years of televised propaganda, which revolves around two core issues: 1. ‘Madrid steals from us’, and 2. ‘We are different from Spaniards’, meaning: superior to them. No need to add that the rest of Spain doesn’t feel a particular sympathy for Catalonia as a result of this, which has in itself become a third reason for many Catalans to want to break away.
Politically, the independence issue was relatively marginal until the leader of the biggest centre-right party decided to ride the wave of popular indignation and switch from moderate regionalism to full support for independence, a few years ago. This guy was called Artur Mas. He has his picture in the dictionary under the voice ‘mediocrity’, right next to the picture of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy. Mas has gambled his political career on the ephemeral prospect of going down in history as the father of Catalan independence. He won’t be the first to fail at that, and he definitely won’t be the last.
At the moment, support for independence hovers around fifty percent of the population. The Spanish prime minister has reiterated that Catalan independence, and any binding referendum on the subject, is out of the question. But aside from that he has wisely kept a low profile. Catalan nationalists easily take offense at anything said by a Spaniard with whatever intent, so in order not to rouse the spirits of independence more than necessary the Spanish government mainly keeps its silence.
From his side, Artur Mas has been trying to create goodwill for an independent Catalonia among European political leaders and businessmen, but has been rebuffed practically everywhere. The EU simply doesn’t want the hassle. Spain can make a lot trouble with its veto right in the European institutions, it’s a democratic western country so no-one abroad really understands why some of its citizens want to break away, and in general the EU is built to deal with international integration, not with national disintegration. Because there is no scenario for this eventuality, an independent Catalonia would automatically be expelled from the EU and the euro. Business leaders are afraid of the ensuing instability and have threatened to leave the region in case it really becomes independent.
Still, Artur Mas bravely pushes on. Because the Spanish high court has prohibited any binding referendum he has sought to transform the current elections into a plebiscite on independence. To do so he made a very uneasy alliance with left wing republicans under the name ‘Together for Yes’. They did not get a majority of seats. And the only way for them to govern is to reach a deal with an ultra left wing independence party. Not a good recipe for political stability, especially if you take into account that while independence parties gained a small majority of seats, they did not win a majority of the popular vote.
Indeed, it does look like the current independence drive has reached its peak and is now slowly losing momentum. If there had been a more charismatic leader than Artur Mas, it might have persisted, but even then it would have been unlikely that Catalans would have gained their independence. Realistically, there are two prerequisites for them to do so. One is an unequivocable majority of popular support, so not fifty or fifty-two percent, but more something like sixty or seventy percent. Two is the ok from Washington. Because let’s face it, in these matters the US still holds the keys. If the State Department decides that Catalonia should become an independent state, then the EU will find a way to deal with the hassle and Spain will be forced to accept the outcome. But that’s very unlikely. The US has no problem to carve up states around the world if it suits their interests, but Spain has been a loyal ally ever since the days of Franco, and the Obama administration has reiterated that they highly value a strong relationship with a united Spanish state.
Last but definitely not least, in case of independence the FC Barcelona would no longer play Real Madrid twice a year, but would instead be relegated to a provincial league of semi-amateur clubs with no interest at all for football fans the world over. And this is probably the only reason why people outside of Spain would care for the Catalan question.
So how about the no front in recent elections? Both the big national parties have very limited support in Catalonia, and with Artur Mas swinging to independence, the middle class vote against it has been reaped by a relatively new party called ‘Citizens’. Economically conservative and socially progressive, Citizens has made Spanish unity and reconciliation between the inflamed spirits on both sides their issue. Their pronunciation against independence and the fact that they haven’t yet had the time and opportunity to stain themselves with political vices is what made them gain support. On the same side, the indignado party Podemos has been crushed in Catalonia, mostly because Pablo Iglesias has pronounced his party against independence.
Earlier this year, Ada Colau and her ‘Barcelona in Common’ platform were able to win the elections precisely because she was smart enough not to touch the independence issue. In fact, the indignado community in Catalonia is divided, so supporting one side means alienating the other. Now, Podemos has made the national choice of unity, with which they continue to distance themselves from the people that gave life to the indignado movement four years ago. In Catalonia they presented themselves under the worn-out slogan of ‘Yes We Can’, which was also confusing because ‘Yes’ generally indicates the side that supports independence. They didn’t even win ten percent of the vote.
The defeat of the post-indignado party in Catalonia and the absence of a serious grass roots alternative doesn’t spell good news for the general elections later this year. Podemos seems to be turning into just another political party that doesn’t represent the people they are supposed to represent, and many of its potential voters are actually growing fed up with Pablo Iglesias’ face. It’s also unlikely that a national platform like ‘Ahora en Común’ will be able to organize itself and stand a chance while being true to its local heterogeneous roots. And maybe that’s not even something people will want to strive for. Democratic regeneration is already taking place on a local level, in the neighbourhoods and in the cities, where people only represent themselves in order to make a tangible change in their lives. Catalan nationalism is a digression from the core issue. Independent or not, it would be the same mess. Truly revolutionary would be a place where there are no ‘states’ and ‘nations’, but only local communities, each one independent from the other, and all of them linked by nothing but human solidarity.
A little catch-up in short. During the last two elections, the political establishment of Spain has been rocked by candidates that have their roots in the indignado movement. First the European elections in 2014, where Pablo Iglesias and Podemos Party took eight percent of the vote, and lately in the municipal elections where local citizen’s platforms won the town hall in Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities.
Next up is the general election in November. In the streets, for years now, a heterogeneous mass has shouted “Yes we can”, and the latest electoral results have given them reason enough to believe that it will indeed be possible to enter parliament, peacefully, and bring democracy back to the people.
At the next elections, those people have Podemos and Pablo Iglesias to vote for. Many people will, some of them will do so for lack of better, and many will not, because Pablo Iglesias doesn’t represent them any more or less than the established parties do.
The indignado movement has a very strong grass-roots anti-authoritarian vein. Now, within Podemos, many people have voiced criticism about the lack of internal democracy, and the way candidates are elected. That is, on closed lists, to be approved or rejected as a whole. In practice, the lists that get supported by the party elite are the ones who usually get elected.
It has also become evident in the latest election that Podemos is incapable of winning on its own. It won where it adhered to citizens’ platforms that went into the neighbourhoods to gather proposals and ideas from the people.
Last Tuesday, to emulate this succesful formula, a statewide initiative was launched in view of the general election: ‘Ahora en Comùn’, “Now in Common”. Within three days the platform gathered the support of over 20.000 people, many of whom members of various social, political and grass-roots organisations, among which Podemos itself.
Ahora en Comùn seeks to give space to all the different forces who long for social change and present a candidate of popular unity at the upcoming elections.
From their manifest: “We believe that it’s both possible and essential to put that which unites us ahead of our differences in order to reach an agreement on a number of common sense issues that reflect the social consensus of our time: the need to recover our sovereignty, to regenerate and enhance democracy, to reclaim the integrity and transparency of our political representatives, to defend the universality of human rights (education, healthcare, food, housing and employment) and to establish dignity, equality, participation and justice as basic principles of the new way of doing politics that 21st century challenges and opportunities demand.”
There have already been calls for Podemos to unite themselves with this platform, but Pablo Iglesias was quick to freeze some people’s hopes. He desccribed the new platform as maneuvred by the old left, and didn’t want to be associate with them. “We are not going to place ourselves where the enemy wants us to be placed”.
During two years of activism in and around Spain I have hardly ever heard the word ‘enemy’ be used, so it startled me a bit to hear it mentioned by a candidate who aims to represent the social change that has been brewing in the streets and the squares these last four years. Dismissing a wide range of people as maneuvred by old lefties could prove to be a costly mistake. It’s not as if Iglesias doesn’t want to cooperate with those people. He does, as long as it happens under the banner of Podemos. In other words: “I won’t join you, but you can join me.” To people from his own party who signed the “Ahora en Comùn” call he sends a thinly veiled threat of expulsion: “Everyone is free to change parties”.
Podemos may have peaked too early. Maybe they never were meant to be the vehicle of change they professed to be. But at the same time, the Ahora en Comùn platform has only just started to create local nodes and give life to an organization. In Barcelona or Madrid, it took only a couple of months for a newborn citizen’s initiative to beat the established parties and win the mayorship. So with or without Iglesias, there is still time enough for ‘Ahora en Comùn’ to take parliament by storm.
It has taken four years for the 15M movement to arrive from the occupied squares to the palaces of power. Last month, grass roots political parties all over Spain have shaken up the establishment and conquered, among others, the municipalities of Madrid and Barcelona. Local platforms and nationwide party ‘Podemos’, inspired by the indignados movement, are now gearing up towards the general election next November, to replace the old regime.
In Barcelona, anti-eviction activist and sweetheart of the movement Ada Colau has been elected the first female mayor of the city. The platform for which she was a candidate, ‘Barcelona en Comú’ (Barcelona in Common), proposes a radical democratic revolution, with continuous citizens’ participation, transparency of government, right to housing and basic sustainment for all, and a lot more.
In Madrid, a traditional stronghold of the Conservatives, the new platform ‘Ahora Madrid’ came in a close second, wresting control of the city in collaboration with Socialists. The new mayor, Manuela Carmena, a 71-year old lawyer, describes herself as a “caring grandmother” to the generation that took the streets four years ago to usher in a new era of democratic change. What she has in common with Ada Colau is a ‘feminine way of doing politics’, based not on hierarchy, but on horizontal organization.
Manuela Carmena was a communist activist under the Franco regime, which made it easy for the leading lady of Spanish conservatism, Esperanza Aguirre, to accuse the Ahora Madrid platform of being a ‘springboard to destroy the western democratic system as we know it.’
She probably couldn’t have made better publicity for her opponents. It reminded me of one the slogans we used to sing when we filled the streets of Madrid. “Madrid será la tumba del sistema”: Madrid will be the tomb of the system.
As for me, I have retreated to private life on my Italian estate, like Cincinnatus. But obviously I cannot remain untouched when a carrier pigeon brings me revolutionary updates from Spain. So I wrote to some of my old comrades, to get a first hand idea of what is going on. This is a brief account of what they old me.
H: “What has happened in Spain is that activists are forming political platforms (Barcelona en Comú, Ahora Madrid, Marea Atlántica…etc) to try and bring down the last remaining wall of the protests, the institutional wall.
It’s typical for activists to become politicians at some point in their lives, but what is new in Spain is that there are a lot of them now and voters only seem to support them gradually. The campaigns for municipal candidates (supported by Podemos, but not a part of it) have been like a continuation of the indignados, with candidates going into the neighbourhoods to listen to people’s proposals instead of organising rallies.
No candidate has won an absolute majority. This opens a new political front in Spain where deals have to be made. We’re entering a phase where a minority will govern and each proposal will have to be approved by fragmented parliaments.”
J: “All political analysts agree that what was formed on the streets and in the squares during the 15M, has crystallised into political movements like Podemos and the integration of left wing movements. Together, we decided to give power to people who had no voice until now… But now comes the difficult part: not just protesting, but building… The adversary is enormous, and they will have to work very hard…
A lot of people said it wasn’t possible, but in the end we did it!!! I think that is the strongest message, but the traditional parties are waiting and hoping that this is just a fashion so that they can go back to their business as usual.”
P: “The streets have given way to the institutions. (…) At the municipal level a LOT of things will change. Things like a ban on foreclosures can pass very soon, at least in some cities.
In the autonomous communities and regional governments where such basic things as health care or education are decided, there hasn’t been an electoral change due to lack of unity. In the cities, Podemos, which incorporates a part of the movement, preferred to go it alone, instead of uniting with other movements like in Madrid and Barcelona, and this didn’t played out in their favour.”
JC: “Podemos hasn’t really been clear about its own political collocation, and has preferred not to touch on subjects like nationalism, the economy etc, apart from becoming less revolutionary and more reformist. I have to say that I don’t really like the party, and above all I don’t like [its leader] Pablo Iglesias and his swollen ego, and I can’t see where this is all going. But obviously, it is the lesser evil by far.”
D: “The vertical leadership style of Podemos did not live up to the expectations, and the confluence of municipal candidatures based on a highly horizontal post-party model have changed the game.
Not even Greece has seen the level of innovation and empowerment that we are witnessing here. You can call me chauvinist, arrogant, or crazy, but I think the Spanish indignados are at the forefront of global change and of one of the greatest successes of the Occupy/Indignado movement. And I am convinced that the changes that are happening will not be happening only here. A lot of people are looking at us, and this is going to exceed the Spanish borders by far.
Here you can smell hope, you can smell revolution, you can smell social and political change.”
H: “Now it’s going to be interesting to see how the municipal platforms in Madrid, Barcelona, Coruña and Santiago are going to work. And from there, we will see if we can create momentum for the general elections. If Podemos opens up its program and succeeds in uniting with the local platforms than I have no doubt they will win the general elections in November.”
P: “The streets are empty for the moment while everyone is waiting to see what is going to happen from above. But if things don’t change, people will fill the streets again. There is a lot of expectation. Suddenly we all have friends in local councils, but it’s also very clear that if they don’t do what they should do we will confront them like we would with any other government.”
In the meantime, even though Pandora’s box has been open for a while, the reaction tries to tighten it grip on the people by approving the new citizen security law that aims at scaring people out of protesting. As from July, ridiculous fines of up to tens of thousands of euro’s can be imposed for demonstrating outside of parliament, avoiding a foreclosure, resisting arrest, blocking traffic, filming police officers etc.
Today, all over Spain, people are protesting the restriction of their civil rights. Just a few more months and they will be in front of parliament anyway, not to protest, but to celebrate.
The 15M movement that exploded in May 2011 gave rise to a galaxy of different assemblies, initiatives, movements and struggles in permanent evolution. And although the indignados initially rejected all forms of representative democracy in favour of direct citizens’ participation, a year ago in Spain a political party was born which was directly inspired by the 15M movement: ‘Podemos’ (‘We can’).
Four months after its foundation the new party dashed into the European limelight by conquering five seats in the Europarliament, presenting itself as a radical alternative to the Spanish political dinosaurs of PP and PSOE (“¡La misma mierda es!“). On the eve of the election in Puerta del Sol the trademark 15M slogan “They don’t represent us!” turned into “Yes! They represent us!”
Today, Podemos showed its strength with a massive demonstration in Madrid that filled the Puerta del Sol and the boulevards of the capital all the way down to city hall at Cibeles. While an anti-austerity party closely linked to Podemos has been voted into office in Greece, the party is leading the polls in Spain, ahead of this year’s general election. It looks like we might witness the dawn of a new season in Spanish and European politics.
What started off in 2008 as an economic crisis has turned into a collective state of mind, a way of life, whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t have anything to do with the economy any more. If people started spending money and banks started giving credit the crisis would be over tomorrow, but evidently there’s something else going on. A kind of generalized pessimism with regard to the future, linked to worries over climate change, rampant radicalism, rising international tensions and consequent rearmament, all of it exemplified by the ‘Doomsday clock‘ being put ahead to three minutes to Midnight…
In reaction to this permanent crisis, Europe is divided between north and south. Traditional parties are losing ground practically everywhere. It’s just that in the north they are losing to right wing parties, while the south is turning to the left. Then again, does it still make any sense to talk about ‘left’ and ‘right’ in 21st century politics? Probably not, but for lack of better terms we are stuck with them. So what is the difference between the two?
In the 1990s, Italian folk singer Giorgio Gaber tried to answer the question with a song, saying things like ‘the bath tub is right wing, the shower is left wing; Swiss chocolate is right wing, Nutella is left wing; sneakers are right wing, wearing them without laces is left wing; luck is right wing, bad luck is always left wing,’ etc. etc. All of it to show that a real difference between the two didn’t exist anymore.
But there still is, I think. North European right wing parties and movements like Pegida, Front National, UKIP and their counterparts in Holland, Belgium and Austria all represent a kind of irrational longing to the past, when things were local, small scale, understandable, and national culture was predominant without too much influence from the outside. Of course, those days of isolation are over. Those parties don’t have the future. On the other hand, left wing movements like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain embrace globalism in its true sense. They look toward a future of mixed races and peoples and cultures, living together in mutual respect. This is another difference between between right and left, the most significant one: the right is based on fear, the left is based on hope.