From the standpoint of Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, who imposed direct rule over the region, December 21st’s elections to a new Catalan parliament did not at all go according to plan. Despite several candidates languishing in jail, despite the refusal by Spanish TV to show some of the independence parties’ election broadcasts, highlighting media bias, despite the region being flooded with national police, the outcome of the poll was little different to the previous balance of power.
Ciudadanos, the new conservative party which is rapidly displacing the corrupt and discredited Popular Party (PP) of Rajoy, particularly in Catalunya where the PP enjoys less than 10% pf the vote, became the single biggest force in the new parliament. But it will not get office - independence parties collectively outweigh it. The result, underlined by a high electoral turnout, means continued deadlock over the future of the region.
Within the independence bloc, however, there has been a shift away from the left. The CUP, the Popular Unity Candidacy, which had been centrally involved in organising general strikes in the region following the imposition of direct rule, lost half its vote and 60% of its seats. Catalunya en Comun, the party of Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, also performed poorly. It sought a third path between direct rule and independence but its message of unity was lost in a highly polarised election.
Podem, whose branches were suspended by the central Podemos leadership for having aligned itself with the independence bloc, also did badly, to no-one’s surprise. Likewise the Socialists, whose members were haemorrhaging even before the election due to their party’s support nationally for the imposition of direct rule.
The election took place in highly abnormal conditions. The militarisation of the region by the Spanish state police penetrated every aspect of life. The whole operation was ruled by the government to be a “state secret”, to shield it from accountability. People critical of the occupation online were arrested. MEPs denounced the Spanish Government for making it difficult to visit jailed former ministers and officials from the Catalan administration.
The Spanish state took advantage of direct rule to use police to seize artworks from a Catalan museum in Lerida, whose ownership are disputed. There were further reports that direct rule was being used to disrupt work on the exhumation of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War - which underlines the essential continuity between the authoritarian PP and the Francoist state.
The current crisis has been brewing for more than a decade, since the Socialist Government in 2006 negotiated a new statute giving greater autonomy to the region, which the PP got the Constitutional Court to overturn. The PP uses its anti-Catalan bigotry as a badge of honour. It has wheeled out a similarly chauvinist approach in other regions, threatening the autonomy of regional bodies in Navarra, the Basque Country and Castilla-La Mancha - a line supported by both the judiciary and the monarchy.
Nineteen of the elected candidates to the new Catalan parliament are either in prison, on bail or in exile. Some face charges that carry a thirty year sentence. More are expected to be arrested. The Spanish state government claims it is merely upholding the rule of law, but few independent commentators believe this. The Constitutional Court, like many other sections of the Spanish judiciary, are political appointees. In a recent EU survey, Spain came third to last among 28 member states in terms of public perception of judicial independence, above only Slovakia and Bulgaria. Over half of those surveyed rated judicial independence as “very bad” or “fairly bad”.
Basic civil liberties are also far more restricted than in other western countries. Last year the rapper Valtonyc got three and a half years in prison for lyrics that were judged insulting to the monarchy and encouraging to terrorism. “People are being sent to prison for their songs or for a tweet,” says Virginia Pérez Alonso, the President of the Platform to Defend Free Expression. The numbers of individuals being convicted of giving verbal support to terrorism has increased dramatically in the last year, even though the actual terrorist activities of Basque separatists and others against the Spanish state ended several years ago.
Early in January 2018, Oriol Junqueras’s application for bail was rejected. Spain’s Supreme Court ruled that the ousted Catalan vice president, now re-elected to the Catalan Parliament, was likely to re-offend if released. Carles Puigdemont, the deposed Catalan president, who fled to Belgium to avoid incarceration, has described the four independence leaders still being held by the Spanish state as “hostages”. There seems to be little sign of an early solution to the crisis.