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Vol. 81/No. 42      November 13, 2017


Madrid takes over in Catalonia, calls snap elections

The Spanish government met with little organized resistance when it imposed direct rule over Catalonia after the government there had declared independence. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy defused any serious protests by calling for snap regional elections Dec. 21.

Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont, who had called for “peaceful opposition” to Madrid’s rule, announced from Belgium Oct. 31 that the pro-independence parties would contend in the special election and he would respect the results. Puigdemont and other government ministers fled there when they learned that Spanish Attorney General José Manuel Maza had filed charges against him and 19 other officials that carry sentences totaling 45 years.

The Spanish Senate voted Oct. 27 to impose direct rule after Catalonia’s parliament just minutes before had declared independence, defying the government’s order to stand down. Rajoy appointed Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría to head the Catalonian government and run its ministries from Madrid beginning Oct. 30.

A mass march opposing separation took place in Barcelona Oct. 29. Police put participation at 300,000 people. It was organized under the rubric, “We are all Catalonia.” Participants chanted, “We will vote,” and “Long live Spain, long live Catalonia.”

Both the Catalan branch of Spain’s governing People’s Party and the Catalan Socialist Party supported the march.

Government officials who had been sacked were given time to collect their belongings, but were told that if they tried to work they would likely face charges. Teachers, firefighters, police and most other public sector employees turned up for work with no widespread absenteeism.

The chief of Catalonia’s police force, who was removed from his post, issued a statement urging the 17,000 officers to comply with the orders from Madrid.

The Catalan branches of the two biggest trade unions, Commisiones Obreras and Unión General de Trabajadores, issued a joint statement Oct. 27 in favor of the elections, calling it “an essential step” for Catalans to express themselves democratically and against any resistance in the streets.

Madrid hopes its suspension of Catalan self-rule will quell the movement for national rights that has grown in recent years. The clash came to a head Oct. 1 when the Spanish government sent thousands of police and soldiers to attempt to stop a referendum on independence. The attempt failed and the vote passed overwhelmingly, but less than half of eligible voters took part.

Catalan government leaders had counted on a favorable reception to their moves from leaders of the European Union, but the opposite was the case. Across the board, they were told they would never get into the EU without approval from Spain.

Support for Catalan national rights had surged in the preceding years after a 2010 ruling in Spain’s Constitutional Court revoked major aspects of Catalan autonomy, including recognizing “Catalonia as a nation” and preferential use of the Catalan language. Regional elections in 2015, with a turnout of nearly 80 percent, had resulted in a parliamentary majority for pro-independence parties.

Different class responses
In addition to the sizable pro-union march Oct. 29, there have been demonstrations of hundreds of thousands over recent weeks to protest Madrid’s attacks on the referendum, imprisonment of independence advocates and thuggish police assaults.

The different responses reflect class divisions. Catalonia’s strong industrial base means it’s one of the better off provinces in Spain. Substantial sections of urban professionals and middle-class layers, university students and many farmers press for independence with anti-working-class arguments that Catalonia would fare better on its own, no longer saddled with subsidizing the central government budget. They say that provisions in the Spanish Constitution that guarantee preferential treatment and larger allocations for social aid to regions in Spain where workers face lower wages and worse working and social conditions place an undue burden on Catalonia. These social layers form a large part of the base of the pro-independence organizations.

While still significant, support for separation is lower in the working class. The 2007 capitalist financial crisis hit Spain hard, and previous pro-independence governments have pushed through harsh anti-working-class “austerity” measures. Over many decades, workers have moved to Catalonia both from the rest of Spain and elsewhere in search of jobs and improved living conditions, and some don’t speak Catalan. Many see unemployment, wages, health care, pensions and other social protections as more pressing needs than splitting from Spain.  
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