The Only Way To Resolve the Catalan Conflict Is To Let the People Decide

Dolors Sabater

Catalonia heads to the polls today in its first election since Spanish courts jailed pro-independence leaders for sedition and banned the Catalan president from public office. Dolors Sabater, lead candidate for the anti-capitalist CUP, told Jacobin why the Catalan national question won't go away — and why a referendum is the only way to resolve it.

Dolors Sabater. (Roser Gamonal / CUP)

Interview by
Àngel Ferrero

Today, Catalonia heads to the polls in the first elections since pro-independence president Quim Torra was banned from public office by the Spanish courts. Torra’s ouster was the latest milestone in an ongoing battle between Catalonia’s institutions and the central Spanish state following the suppression of the October 2017 unofficial independence referendum and the jailing of Catalan leaders for sedition.

Given the recent years of conflict, the Catalan election campaign, like recent Spain-wide contests, has again been dominated by sharp divides over the national question. Polls in recent weeks suggest that pro-independence parties will win most seats (if not an absolute majority of votes), while the Franco-nostalgist, Spanish-nationalist Vox will enter the Catalan parliament for the first time.

There are diverse forces within the pro- and anti-independence camps, each commanding just short of 50 percent support; meanwhile, En Comú Podem, linked to Unidas Podemos, backs Catalonia’s right to self-determination, but does not call for independence. Among pro-independence parties, the dominant forces are the soft-left Esquerra Republicana and the centrist Junts. But this election is set to see a breakthrough for the anti-capitalist Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) and Dolors Sabater’s Guanyem Catalunya. Polls suggest their joint list will win eight seats in parliament, double their 2017 score.

From 2015 to 2018, Sabater was mayor of Catalonia’s third-largest city, Badalona — and an example of municipal radicalism akin to Ada Colau in Barcelona or Manuela Carmena in Madrid. As CUP-Guanyem’s lead candidate in this race, she hopes to carry the lessons of town hall socialism into parliamentary politics. Ahead of today’s vote, Sabater spoke to Àngel Ferrero about the realignment on the Catalan left, the disastrous handling of the pandemic in the region, and the reasons why the pro-independence movement can’t rely on the dominant centrist parties.


AF

Why are these elections important — and why will they be different from last time?

DS

For lots of reasons. First, because we’re voting at the height of a public health crisis, which is sure to drive down turnout. The pandemic has exposed the limits of the neoliberal system and sharpened inequalities, worsening a social and economic crisis that was unfolding already. It’s the mass of people who are picking up the bill. We in CUP-Guanyem have always challenged this system and its elites — also meaning, the same elites who refuse Catalonia the right to decide on its future.

We’re coming from a period in Spanish politics in which social demands, as expressed by the 15-M square occupations and the Plataforma de Afectados de la Hipoteca (PAH) anti-eviction movement, have combined with the pro-independence cause. Since the calling of the self-determination referendum on October 1, 2017, the Catalan government has been paralyzed by the Spanish courts and its transparent moves to criminalize pro-independence forces.

Some three thousand people have already faced judicial retaliation for their ties to the independence process, and some even accused of terrorism, in crude police frame-ups that have repeatedly been exposed as fraudulent. Moreover, the two parties at the head of the Catalan government [Esquerra Republicana and Junts] have proven anything but valiant defenders of social and national rights. So, the election is an opportunity to take back the political initiative from these parties — and stop such forces from above from extinguishing the potential that first arose from below.

AF

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had in Catalonia?

DS

Enormous — we’re talking about over nineteen thousand dead [out of a population of 7.5 million — almost double the US death rate]. The health crisis has exposed the effects of cuts in the health system in recent years, despite the efforts of medical professionals, who are under huge pressure.

Unemployment — especially youth unemployment — has skyrocketed. The Catalan economy, dominated by small and medium businesses and the self-employed, is really feeling the effects of this crisis, and in particular the tourism sector. Benefits applications have soared and the queues outside food banks are growing ever longer.

That’s why one of our main proposals is a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to cut the roots of poverty and make sure no one is excluded from the political process. If we had already had UBI, it would have been far easier to have people stay at home for two weeks, to ease pressure on hospitals, and save us this false debate between “our health or the economy.” It would also bring a truly revolutionary change in the economic structure.

The Spanish government decided to handle the pandemic on a centralized basis, without regard for the differences between territories. This proved to be a mistake — it could have been much better handled at a local level. The government mobilized the army and plenty of military rhetoric, but without handing more resources to the health system and the scientific community, or giving them more tools to handle the crisis more effectively. And now they’ve decided to hold these elections on February 14 — against calls from both the Catalan government and health experts — simply because it will help the candidate of the PSOE [the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, currently the national ruling party], former health minister Salvador Illa.

AF

What does CUP think of Spain’s current ruling coalition between the PSOE and Unidas Podemos?

DS

If I had to put it in a couple of words, I’d say they’ve abandoned their promises. Since Podemos entered government it has worked to shore up the PSOE, and the PSOE shores up the system as a whole. So, we could say that Podemos has ultimately shored up the status quo. In government, it has not reversed any of the laws it promised to get rid of, like the [previous right-wing government’s] labor-market reforms, or the so-called gag law repressing free expression. And private energy companies are still abusing their customers.

Spain would get a very low score for freedom of speech: a rap artist, Valtònyc, is in Belgium to avoid being jailed for his lyrics, while another, Pablo Hásel, is going to prison for things he has said. This level of persecution against those who dissent is almost unknown internationally. Podemos has become part of the institutions, and it has lost all of its energy as a party challenging the political system that arose from the transition [the turn from Francisco Franco’s dictatorship to constitutional monarchy in the late 1970s].

AF

Foreign observers might have a hard time distinguishing you from Catalunya En Comú Podem, the Podemos-affiliated coalition here. What’s the difference, apart from your views on independence?

DS

CUP-Guanyem is a socialist, feminist, environmentalist, and pro-independence coalition. There can be social progress only if we are fully sovereign — and that means everything from political sovereignty to energy sovereignty, and policies that guarantee citizens’ right to our existence, from a republican perspective. We’re the only force standing for all of that.

We don’t think that social struggles can be separated from the Catalan national cause. Part of Catalunya En Comú Podem was for Catalan sovereignty, but it has been marginalized and a centralizing model imposed instead. The best proof of that is the fact that Anticapitalistas, which had been an integral part of Unidas Podemos, is backing the CUP in these elections. We are the only ones challenging the establishment from the Left.

While Podemos has entered the institutions and demobilized the popular struggles in the streets, we enter the institutions precisely in order to strengthen that fight in the streets. In this sense, the most important difference is that our structure is based on assemblies. Our program is developed and decided in local assemblies that are very closely linked to social movements. While Podemos began with that kind of structure, it has abandoned it in favor of a top-down, more hierarchical model.

AF

Some abroad would wonder why you stand for independence, when this could even have counterproductive effects for the Left? And what is your roadmap toward that goal?

DS

Well, while the media and some parties try to blacken its name, most of the Catalan independence movement is on the Left. The pressure for independence has always come not from parties but from social movements and citizen organizing platforms. Catalonia is a nation and, as such, has the right to self-determination. That in no way implies an abandonment of internationalism.

Our goal in this election is to secure strong representation in parliament so that we can force a new period in Catalan politics. We want to strengthen public services, create new Catalan structures like a publicly owned bank, and hold a binding referendum for Catalan self-determination by 2025, as a step toward unity with other Catalan-speaking areas.

Junts has proposed that Catalonia should declare independence if pro-independence parties win more than 50 percent of the vote on Sunday. Esquerra Republicana still supports the idea of a “roundtable for dialogue” with the central Spanish government, but this has had the effect of neglecting the international dimension of this conflict. Yes, there has to be a space for dialogue, but not on such an obviously unequal basis. The referendum we’re calling for is the only realistic and feasible solution.

AF

Some on the Spanish left have often accused you of supporting governments led by right-wing pro-independence forces and claimed that your approach is unrealistic. How would you respond?

DS

If the CUP has done anything, it is to constantly work to pull these governments to the Left. For instance, the CUP has tirelessly committed to fighting official corruption, no matter who is doing it. We are the only party to have denounced corruption cases in both the PSOE and [Jordi Pujol and Carles Puigdemont’s liberal, pro-independence] Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya and its political heirs. We never just shored up these governments — no, we forced them to adopt more progressive social policies and wage a more effective battle against corruption.

Like any intelligent force on the Left, we have been flexible in our tactics, depending on the political moment and the strength of the social movements. But unlike Unidas Podemos’s coalition government with the PSOE, when these governments have had to rely on our support, we’ve made sure that their reliance on us was uncomfortable for them. And they didn’t hide it.

AF

According to polls, the most likely result is a coalition between Junts and Esquerra Republicana, reliant on your support. What do you think could happen, and what are the most important issues for the next parliament?

DS

We hope to have as much room as possible to impose conditions on the ruling parties, and to be a thorn in their side. We will not fail to meet our responsibilities — we’ve had a lot of internal discussion on that point. But we’ve already made clear that we will not be part of any government that goes on doing what has been done up till now, and that does not make concrete measures for a rupture, both in social terms and with regard to the national question. But in the last instance it will be the grassroots of CUP and Guanyem Catalunya that decide what to do, in assemblies.

What’s the alternative to a pro-independence government? A government led by the PSOE, which has already promised that it will be a “pro-business” government. Its leader, Salvador Illa, has proposed a Catalan health minister who wants to keep the health care system privatized. Catalunya En Comú-Podem has to ask itself if it really wants a government like that.

AF

So, you’ve ruled out supporting a government made up of the PSOE and Catalunya En Comú Podem?

DS

Totally. Besides what I have said already, the “socialists” of the PSOE do not recognize the right to self-determination, or indeed the need for an amnesty of all those who were tried for their role in the 2017 referendum and what followed.

AF

Your program dedicates quite a lot of space to what you call the “internationalization of the conflict.” But what international support can you actually draw on?

DS

The main objective is to give visibility to our situation and stop the Spanish state from alone dominating the narrative. That means finding a way around its biased information on Catalonia and making people aware of what is going on here. We want to explain what the independence movement is, and what the CUP represents within that. More generally, we seek the support of other socialist and national liberation movements and parties.

AF

The elections are sure to see a far-right force, Vox, enter the Catalan parliament for the first time. What’s your assessment of this — and what can the Left do to combat the rise of the far right?

DS

It’s bad news, but it’s also an indicator of a political failure to resolve certain problems. In a time that politics ensures the economy serves only the most powerful and not the mass of the people, and in a time when politics gives up on responding to problems like work and housing, right-wing populism can easily capitalize on the resulting discontent. It channels that into hatred against minorities, rather than criticizing the structures that caused these problems to start with.

That said, we should also note the tolerance for — the connivance with — this type of narrative in some of the state’s own structures, especially in part of the security forces and the judiciary. PSOE candidate Salvador Illa even took part in a “Catalan Civil Society” [anti-independence, pro-Spanish unity] rally in which far-right militants also participated. This type of action only whitewashes the far right. Vox, in turn, has offered to help make Illa president of Catalonia. That would be a historic disgrace. That’s why these elections — and the choice of what government is formed — is so important.

We had a good example in what happened in Badalona. Guanyem Badalona began as a fight to remove the Partido Popular’s (PP) Xavier García-Albiol and his xenophobic policies from the mayor’s office. We succeeded in replacing him, but that ended when Illa — at that time the PSOE secretary — decided for purely electoral reasons to withdraw support and table a motion of no confidence, backed by the PP and [liberal Spanish nationalist] Ciudadanos, to put an end to our administration. The PSOE took over, but now weakened, which allowed the PP to regain strength and ultimately return to the mayor’s office, which it still occupies. That’s what the PSOE is like. But the experience Guanyem had in Badalona is the one we now want to translate to the Catalan parliament.