The radical party behind the Catalan referendum

Can a party become truly led by its members? As Catalonia fights to vote for independence, we meet the tiny, radical movement playing king-makers at the heart of the Catalan struggle. By Marc Almodóvar

On 20 September Spanish central authorities launched a severe crackdown against the Catalan government, intended to force the halt of the independence referendum called for 1 October by the regional government. Madrid claims the referendum is illegal and illegitimate.

In further steps in its repressive agenda against independence, Guardia Civil – a military police force– raided public buildings, including the regional government’s finance department, and arrested 14 senior officials. This unlashed massive peaceful demonstrations of public anger by Catalan people who fail to understand how a political vote supported by the vast majority of the Catalan population can be declared unconstitutional.

But the sweeping raids were not the only actions conducted by Spanish police that day in Barcelona. Somehow unnoticed by international papers, a group of plain-clothes police surrounded the headquarters of a political party, the Popular Unity Candidacy, known as the CUP, and threatened to enter despite having no judicial warrant to do so.

Thousands of supporters and sympathizers gathered in front of the office and forced the police units to abort this plan after 8 hours of their intimidatory presence.

The demonstrators made a decision to party, sing and dance in front of the police – to avoid any confrontation that could justify the use of force against the vote planned in Catalonia. But why has such tiny political party been at the epicentre of the repression by the central authorities?

Despite having only 10 of the Catalan parliament’s 135 MPs, this anti-capitalist force has become one of the central kingmakers in the process of self-determination conducted by the Catalan government. Its deputies are crucial for ensuring a separatist majority in the chamber, and so, while voting to put a pro-independence government into power, its radical anti-capitalist view has frequently clashed with the Catalan establishment and the liberal parties in charge of the Catalan government.

Born in the 1980s in some villages as a municipalist movement closely linked to the separatist far-left movements, the CUP decided to make its debut in the regional (Catalan) elections in 2012.

With the echoes of the 15M movement still ringing through Spanish politics, their representatives brought fresh air to the chamber. Even the simple fact of seeing a politician talking in parliament with a t-shirt bearing a political motto became a matter of debate in the Catalan media – not to mention the party’s openly anti-capitalist speech.

The party’s internal code prevents the professionalization of MPs as they can’t run for more than one term in the Catalan parliament – or a maximum of two terms in local municipalities.

One of the slogans used by the CUP during an election campaign.
One of the slogans used by the CUP during an election campaign. Picture: KRLS, Creative Commons

‘Nobody is infallible, and this is the best tool we found to avoid any material or personal interests standing between us’, says party spokesperson Núria Gibert.

But the core of the CUP’s work is in cities and villages.

‘We understand that politics are born there; are made in the streets’ says Lluc Salellas, a member of the party’s national secretariat. Or as a slogan of the movement goes: ‘One foot in the street, one foot in the institutions’.

The CUP now rules 28 municipalities in Catalonia, and is part of the ruling coalition in big cities including Sabadell and Badalona, where they managed to defeat mayor Xavier Garcia Albiol – the leader of the ultra-conservative People’s Party (mostly known by its acronym PP) in Catalonia. As well as frequently railing against migrants, Albiol likes to describe the CUP’s members as the “socially unstructured ones” – just one example of the hate speech mounted against the party.

When a decision must be taken by the party as a whole – for example, every time the party votes on legislation – debate is taken to each and every local assembly

In these cities and villages they debated, then acted, to remunicipalize services – reversing privatisation – and introduced the participatory budgeting process. In some villages they even brought the debates to schools, where pupils took part in debates to decide how to spend public money.

The CUP prefer not to call themselves a party but a movement – with decision-making by assemblies central to its model. ‘We’re trying to work the opposite way from how traditional leftists movements did’ says Salellas.

When a decision must be taken by the party as a whole – for example, every time the party votes on legislation – debate is taken to each and every local assembly. Consensus is sought, but if it is not reached, a vote takes place.

Local assemblies then send delegates to coordination meetings. Any single assembly has the same number of representatives as any other, just as any single member has the same voice and vote as any other. ‘We don't understand a member as just a fee payer’ says Salellas. ‘for us members are daily activists’.

Groups of assemblies can also ask for decisions to be reconsidered, of call a general assembly where all members – and even outside political forces – can participate. The party must take on the decisions of the assemblies even if they contradict the ideas of the secretariat: and assemblies can push the movement to reshape decisions previously taken, or force a general assembly to be called on a specific topic.

He says the idea is that local assemblies must be the ones setting the agenda, not the other way around, and that major decisions must be supported by a majority. ‘At least we try, we don’t always succeed,’ he adds – nowadays rushed meetings sometimes collide with this principle.

The CUP's seats in the Catalan parliament, in yellow. The larger pro-independence party is shown in green.
The CUP's seats in the Catalan parliament, in yellow. The larger pro-independence party is shown in green. Picture: Sfs90, Wikimedia Commons

‘Assemblies are good for deliberating, not for deciding’ remarks University Pompeu Fabra’s political science professor Ferran Requejo, arguing that the CUP ‘works more pyramidally than what it may look like’. But their radical model has had many successes. ‘It is probably the only party in Europe that is genuinely steered by its base,’ Lluis Orriols, a politics professor at the Carlos III University in Madrid, told the Financial Times last year. ‘And it is an anti-system party that has always tried to keep its distance from the machinery of power.’

‘Our aim is not to be a rigid structure’ emphasises Salellas, while Gibert adds: ‘We don’t like the personality politics of other political forces such as Podemos’.

In January 2016, after a tiebreaker general assembly (the first assembly saw delegates evenly split on the issue) attended by 2900 people – representing local assemblies and other social movements – the CUP decided not to support the nomination of the neoliberal Artur Mas as president of Catalonia.

Mas himself was targeted by the party for his neoliberal policies of austerity and his repressive actions against social movements. The establishment media, siding with the conservative interests of Mas’s right-wing party, Convergence (CDC) and unfamiliar with the CUP’s form of democratic debate, put members of the movement under heavy pressure – colliding with the ethos of assembly decision-making. After several tense days, Artur Mas finally stepped aside, proposing instead Carles Puigdemont, then mayor of Girona, to become new president of Catalonia with the CUP’s support.

‘Seen with the benefit of hindsight, it was a good decision, as corruption cases linked to Mas could have eroded the image of the process itself’, says Gibert.

Similar pressure was seen during the negotiations to approve the Catalan budget. The CUP succesfully pushed to end austerity measures, and with other social movements pushed for the current referendum, at a time when the separatist movement looked like it was running out of ideas. ‘We’ve been essential. Not enough, but essential’ says Salellas, who argues the CUP’s role has been to ‘pressure the government and not allow them any backtracking’.

The CUP has played a crucial role in bringing Catalonia to the brink of this referendum – even the Financial Times argued that the referendum bill, which declared the region as no longer subject to Spanish courts, ‘carried all the hallmarks of the CUP, and its uncompromising push towards secession’.

‘We’re going to be among the forces pushing to make this future constitutional process a dynamic one energised with the involvement of social movements

Even if it’s not clear what can happen next Sunday, with all the repression coming from central authorities, the CUP is getting ready to be a key player in the future constitutional process if independence does go ahead.

‘We’re going to be among the forces pushing to make this future constitutional process a dynamic one energised with the involvement of social movements – the process must come from the bottom up, and be an example of how, in southern Europe's 21st century, we’re able to build a constitution that isn’t determined by the elites,’ says Salellas.

The CUP is pushing to bring the debate to the streets, to the social movements, and then forcing the authorities to take on the conclusions reached there. ‘Probably as a society we’ve never before been so empowered to discuss almost everything, and that’s what we’re going to do,’ says Gibert.

That’s the main challenge to come of this anti-capitalist movement if next Sunday’s referendum drives Catalonia to become a new republic. But that remains a big if. With the collision between central and regional governments now clear, and the large possibility of a last minute crackdown on electoral centres, thousands of neighbours are organizing themselves in local committees to confront any intimidation against the vote. It looks like Catalonia is on the brink of a clash between the popular will and the political.


Header image: Xavier Rondón Medina, Creative Commons. Thumbnail Image: Arnaucc, Creative Commons.