Just like the Supreme Court’s verdict in the case of the independence leaders has brought us to a point of no return, the reaction against it sets a new landmark in Catalonia’s independence process, a change of slope in a journey which those who naively believe in legally enforcing Spain’s unity (or in fast-track independence) thought would be over soon. The clash between law and legitimacy continues today, with both camps firmly dug in. The headless pro-independence movement is shifting and, rather than stay the same, the underlying political problem —the relationship between Catalonia and Spain— has worsened.
A harsh, poisonous guilty verdict
Catalonia’s political prisoners have received harsh sentences: prison terms of 9 to 13 years. The former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, the leaders of the Catalan National Assembly and Òmnium Cultural, the vice president of the government and four ministers have been convicted of violent sedition and will remain in jail. In a landmark case such as this, bending the law to the point where exercising civil rights in a protest has become questionable will carry consequences for Spanish democracy. Like with any disproportionate judgement, not only independence supporters have felt the shockwave in Catalonia. The blast has hit many people from all walks of life, who have revolted against the abuse of power and have experienced it as an unbearable humiliation.
After nine years of massive demonstrations that began with the reaction to the Spanish Constitutional court’s ruling that struck down the Catalan Statute —president Montilla referred to the prevailing sentiment as “disaffection”—, Catalonia’s independence movement is well-established, as are the electoral blocs, with Catalan society split down the middle, though a broad majority supports the release of the political prisoners and a referendum on independence. The huge marches that converged on Barcelona city last Friday showed that the demands are still being voiced in a civic-minded manner. However, the riots are a major change that opens up a most unpredictable new chapter in this story. Thousands of young people, enraged by the lack of tangible results from peaceful political action all these years, have been joined by other youths —outraged by the very many things that tend to outrage twenty year olds— and perhaps also by anarchists and agents provocateurs. Many of them are youngsters whose first political experience came when a self-determination referendum was being proposed in a magical context and they have witnessed Madrid’s response to an exemplary, civic-minded movement: the scorn, the humiliation of the moderates and the police violence on October 1, something they will never forget and are reminded of by police action these days. Ultimately, repression and legal action against democratic demands have boosted independence support in Catalonia. Many independence supporters do not see traditional politics as a useful tool to fulfil their hopes.
The novelty is that the polite, civic-minded crowds who daren’t even drop a candy wrapper in Barcelona are now accompanied by many “fearless” people and a strand of urban guerrilla that places no stock in political channels and perhaps in their current representatives. A new leadership is yet to appear, which makes interlocution and anticipating how the situation will pan out in Catalonia exceedingly difficult. Grassroots leaders Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart have been sentenced to a long, undeserved prison term for effectively calling off the protests in Barcelona on September 20, 2017. Unsurprisingly, today’s demonstrators will not recognise any leaders who attempt to do just that.
Momentum and honesty
The premier of Catalonia is also in at the deep end. President Torra announced an institutional response saying he would not “accept” a guilty verdict in a deplorable parliamentary session that triggered crisis in a cabinet on the verge of mutiny. Torra’s proposal to “exercise the right to self-determination before the end of this term” came as a surprise to vice president Aragonès, the Speaker and the JxCat spokesman. Torra spoke of honesty and living in truth when, actually, any honest elected official should avoid raising unilateral expectations that cannot be fulfilled without shattering the nation.
The relationship between the various factions became so strained that on Saturday afternoon the Catalan government didn’t attend the meeting held by the Parliament’s Speaker with several social actors, including Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, who had refused to have her picture taken with president Torra that very morning.
Quim Torra the activist has failed to occupy the institution’s effective space and his refusal to use the actual president’s office is a fitting metaphor of the situation. The question is what will his political space do? Does the PDECat still exist? How much weight do Puigdemont’s independent MPs carry? Catalonia’s liberal centre will recompose depending on how the events pan out.
The crisis in Catalonia is grave and you cannot rule out Madrid seeking to intervene to a greater extent, something which PM Pedro Sánchez so far has tried to avoid, ahead of the November elections. The situation as it stands today is unpredictable and all the actors are in at the deep end.