Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Blog

Catalonia and the Ongoing Struggle for Independence: An Explainer

Nora Räthzel


Zosia Korcz

| 10 mins read

Since the December 2017 elections, it seems as though political developments in Catalonia take new twists several times a day. However, coverage in international newspapers has become relatively thin on the ground.

With such high stakes for the future of Catalonia, this article is an attempt to summarise the essential issues. I give an overview of the national question, the ‘legitimacy’ of a new Catalonian government, recent controversies, and the wider impact on politics in the region. For an account of the historical background of the conflict and portrayals of the Catalan parties please consult my previous article.

The national question

The conflict between Catalonia and the Spanish state is often portrayed as egocentric Catalonian nationalism against an inclusive nation-state. However, the governing PP (Partido Popular, the heir of Franco’s party) aims to preserve a sense of national unity based on a revival of what they see as Spanish greatness.

Given that the extreme right in Europe (and worldwide) has managed to galvanise significant support around exclusionary, racist nationalisms, it is interesting that the Catalan movement for independence has created a hegemonic concept of the nation that features social rights (e.g. a minimum income not below 60 per cent of the median, tax relief on low pensions, and equal pay for women and men), equality, and inclusiveness (e.g. an open door for refugees).

However, public discourse and official documents are one thing and everyday practices are another. Discrimination against those who are not seen as Catalan occurs in daily life because the political spectrum of those in favour of independence is broad and not everybody acts according to the principles laid out in documents – even if they agree with them.

What constitutes a ‘legitimate’ Catalonian government?

The December elections were not ‘normal’, since they were held by the central government, which currently rules Catalonia based on Article 155 of the constitution. This decrees that a regional government can be ousted by the central government if it violates the constitution. Since the Spanish High Court had declared the referendum for independence held by the Catalonian government in October unconstitutional, the central government used this as an argument for applying Article 155. It will remain in force until there is a new ‘legitimate’ Catalonian government.

But what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ Catalonian government is the key battle currently being fought between the Spanish state, the non–independence Catalonian parties, and the independentistas.

For the Spanish state, a legitimate government is one that does not include any of the politicians who have been accused of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds, which includes all members of the previous government and the leaders of civil society organisations and parties, which helped to organise the referendum.

The court argues that imprisonment is necessary to prevent the accused of repeating their ‘illegal’ activities. According to polls from January 2018, 80.5 per cent of the Catalan population rejects the incarceration of these politicians, even though the same poll showed only 33.6 per cent in favour of an independent Catalan nation–state.

For the independentistas, a legitimate government is one that reinstates the legitimacy of the previous government, since they perceive the application of Article 155 as illegal. As they won the majority of the parliamentary seats (though not of the votes) they have the right to nominate the presidential candidate then to be elected by parliament. Consequently, they aimed to nominate Puigdemont, who had fled to Brussels. The idea was that he could be elected and govern via Skype – an idea that has been rejected by both the High Court and lawyers of the Catalan parliament.

Is the High Court truly objective?

The ERC (the Esquerra Republicana Catalana, or the Left Republicans of Catalonia, an independence party dating from 1931) declared they wanted an ‘effective’ government but needed to negotiate an agreement with the larger JxCat (Junts per Catalunya, or Together for Catalonia, a party formed by Puigdemont merging his PdCat (Partit democrata Catala, a conservative party, supporting independence only recently) with independentistas from social movements. Two months were spent debating how legitimacy and efficacy could be reconciled.

The most prominent idea was to create a new body, a Catalonian Council residing in Brussels of which Puigdemont would become president. Simultaneously, the Catalan parliament would elect a viable president, who would, according to JxCat, execute the orders coming from the Council and its president. ERC disagreed, arguing that the Council and Puigdemont’s presidency could only be symbolic.

Finally, on 1 March Puigdemont temporarily withdrew his candidacy and suggested that Jordi Sanchez, leader of the parliamentary group JxCat, be his replacement. However, the High Court did not permit Sanchez to be released from prison to attend parliament for an election. The independentistas see this as a violation of human rights and the objectivity of the judge is in serious doubt.

No solution in sight

The court and the central government’s aim to incapacitate the elected independentistas serves to reinforce the impasse because it weakens the position of the ‘pragmatics’ who want a viable government. The events of the past few days exemplify this. On 22 March a third presidential candidate, Turull, neither in prison nor exile, was meant to be elected. Since the three independence parties had reached an agreement his election seemed eminent. But in the last minute the CUP abstained, and the election failed.

Immediately afterwards, Turull was jailed together with four other former government members. Not only the independentistas but also the left parties not in favour of independence, the Catalan socialists and CatECP) (‘Catlunya en Comú Podem’, ‘Catalonia in common we can’, formed through an alliance between Catalunya en Comú, a party emerging from a social movement against evictions, and the Catalan branch of Podemos, representing the social movements of 2011), were shocked. They called for a transversal government to defend the rights of Catalan politicians and citizens. Some independentistas agreed that it was time for all democratic parties to come together, and meetings were scheduled. For a short moment it seemed as if the impasse was broken and a viable government could be formed, even one with an agenda broader than a route to independence.

But then Puigdemont was detained in Germany following the renewal of an international arrest warrant by the Spanish court. Almost immediately CUP, JxCat, and ERC joined forces again and with their votes the Catalan parliament has now (28 March) demanded not only to ‘free the political prisoners’ but also to confirm that Puigdemont, Sanchez and Turull have the right to be elected as president of Catalonia. This is a symbolic act that will not have any consequences in terms of forming a new government.

The clock is ticking. After the first attempt to elect a president the constitution leaves only two more months to form a government, otherwise new elections are mandatory.


Even Catalans supporting independence are increasingly frustrated with their parties. Polls showed a fall in support for JxCat especially, seen as the main culprit for the impasse. But after the latest move of the High Court the mood has changed again. Tens of thousands have demonstrated against the detention of Puigdemont and other politicians. For the first time, some demonstrations have become violent. This indicates a new quality of the conflict in which the voices calling for negotiations and a peaceful struggle for an independent republic might become outnumbered.

What is more, the last four years an independence-focused government has pushed all other issues from the agenda. While equality and social justice rank high on the independence programme, no measures to put them into practice have been taken.

Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona and co-founder of Catalunya en Comú, has been able to introduce measures helping those in need of social support. But because she is against independence (while being outspoken against Spanish oppression), the independentistas on the left (CUP and ERC) increasingly refused to support her. Simultaneously, her party decided she must end her coalition with the socialist party because they approved Article 155.

Thus, there are precious few voices in politics now who maintain that solving the social problems the country is facing should come as top priority. The national question has unified political actors, which have nothing else in common and divided those, who would be able to realise a common political agenda. Paralysis and emotionally charged divisiveness are transforming a progressive region into a space of mutual hatred, unable to act on what they define as their goal: social justice, equality, and inclusiveness.

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    Nora Räthzel

    Nora Räthzel is a Senior Professor at the Department of Sociology, Umeå University. She lives in Catalonia. 

    Articles by Nora Räthzel