Interview by Siscu Baiges 13/07/2021
Gabriel Colomé, current academic and research director of the ICPS | Pol Rius
The Institute of Political and Social Sciences (ICPS) has published the report “When the process met the pandemic”. It analyses how the Covid-19 pandemic has influenced the independence process, based on the opinion poll carried out in autumn last year and previous polls. Researchers Lucía Medina and Maria Freixanet conclude, among other things, that the pandemic has made the national question less central to the political debate and has demotivated and demobilised supporters of independence more than those who are not. We talked about this report with Gabriel Colomé, professor of Political Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, director of the Centre for Opinion Studies of the Generalitat between 2005 and 2011 and current academic and research director of the ICPS.
Has the pandemic made the Yes-independence/No-independence debate lose its centrality in Catalonia?
Yes. The party system from 1977 to 2012 was clearly defined along the axes of the sense of belonging and ideology: left-right and Catalan-Spanish. Everyone was situated in their own space. Processism is a fusion, assimilating Spanish and Spain to the right and Catalan to the left. “Catalans are left-wing and Spaniards are right-wing”. The constitutionalist parties -PP, Ciudadanos and PSC- are right-wing, and the others -Junts, ERC and CUP- are left-wing. Instead of having two axes and, therefore, a plurality of parties, what the process does is a dichotomy: black or white. That is what they are looking for. Independence, yes, independence, no. You are right-wing and I am left-wing. It is thus understood that Jordi Sánchez and Junts decide that Junts is left-wing when all the data say that this is not true. In theory they should be positioned in their historical space, on the right. When you ask the people of Junts where they are positioned, they tell you that they are on the left. They have managed to make this credible for them. They have merged the two axes and have the perception, the conviction, that the independentistas are left-wing. People who have voted Convergencia all their lives and who live in Sant Gervasi or Pedralbes say they are left-wing. They use arguments that come from Irish logic. We are the republicans; they are the unionists. When they talk about confrontation and overcoming the state they cannot do it by violence, but they can do it by other mechanisms. One of the important elements is language. They are the progressive, left-wing, Catalan, republicans and the others are Spanish, right-wing and unionist. What does the pandemic do? In the 14 February elections, it changes the narrative that had been the logic from 2015 to 2020. The pandemic has brought the debate back to a social space and not to an identity space. The pandemic has effects on work, the economy,… Independence is not the priority. “I’m locked up at home, what are you telling me, the republic? The pandemic once again places the debate on the social axis that has always existed, but the strategy of the pro-independence supporters has always been to situate the debate in the identity and dichotomous spaces: left equal to Catalonia, right equal to Spain, independence yes, independence no. For this reason, in 2021 the two moderate parties – the socialists and ERC (Illa and Aragonés) – will win, compared to 2017, when the two most polarised and tense parties – Ciudadanos and Junts. (Arrimadas and Puigdemont).
Is the pandemic affecting the cohesion of independentism?
The pandemic, plus tiredness, means that the pro-independence bloc is beginning to break up. This bloc, which had been cohesive and homogeneous until July 2019, broke up for the first time when ERC abstained in the first investiture of Pedro Sánchez and Junts voted against. ERC has already entered into the logic of separating from Junts. It is what is called being pragmatic. All this leads to 650,000 votes less on 14 February.
The pandemic, plus fatigue, means that the pro-independence bloc is beginning to break up.
That nobody expected
It was not expected but it was there. Young people are no longer in the majority pro-independence. What had been a historic U, young people and people over 60-65 years of age who were mainly pro-independence, no longer exists, it is fading away. The young people who had been one of the most important supporters of independence are now distancing themselves from it. The 1,350,000 votes are the hard core of independence. On the other side, 750,000 votes also stayed at home. They have already passed everything. The constitutionalist bloc, if it is not tense, as in 2017, will not vote because there is no danger. In 2017 there was a danger that the pro-independence supporters, after 155, would have a clear majority. This is no longer the case. It is obvious. On 12 July 2020 there were elections in the Basque Country and Galicia. In Galicia, 48% voted. In the Basque Country, just over 50%. People did not vote because they knew that Feijoo and Urkullu would win. Here, when Parliament was dissolved, a poll in El Periódico said that Illa would win the elections. The reaction of the pro-independence movement was to say that holding elections in February was not safe and they tried, without success, to move them to May. They created a climate of health insecurity when it came to voting in order to discourage others, convinced that theirs would all turn out to vote. They were so convincing that they convinced their own and the others not to vote. Both blocs lost a lot of people.
And has the fatigue of the process, if any, weighed on the increase in pro-independence abstentionism?
It has. Firstly, because unity has been broken. The whole process was based on the cohesion and unity of the project. It was in 2015, with Junts pel Sí that it began. It was in 2017, when they campaigned for those affected by the 155. But in 2021 they no longer go together. There is a part of this electorate that will not vote for them again because they discover that the project is not independence and the republic but rather an internal war to see who has the hegemony and who gets the presidency of the Generalitat. There was a higher good, independence, but a good part of their electorate discovers that it is only to govern the Generalitat. And they abstain. And they will not vote again until they agree again. The father of Canada’s transparency law, Stéphane Dion, in 2013, explained at an event of Federalistes d’Esquerres that the independentists were here to stay and that the system should live with them. He asked how many independentists there were. At that time, the polls said they were 48%. In 2006, it was only 14%. Dion said that one had to ask why they had gone from 14% to 48%. And Rajoy did not answer this question: why did they become independentistas? The answer, according to the polls, was that 66% did so, basically, because of an economic issue. The perception of mistreatment that some of those who became independentistas had: Spain steals from us, the fiscal deficit,… Only 10% really wanted political independence. In Dion’s opinion, structural pro-independence supporters are between 20% and 25%. And he concluded that what had to be done was to recover the circumstantial pro-independence supporters for the constitutional space. Let’s make politics fiction: if Rajoy had read the polls well and had given an economic space, the fiscal pact, whatever, the problem would have ended. But in the first meeting with Artur Mas he said no to the fiscal pact and Mas took advantage of this to call elections. Part of these 650,000 abstentionists of 14F are circumstantial and the question is how they can be recovered because, in the end, you will govern in a constitutional space for 75% of the population. You have to try to include 25% of pro-independence supporters, but they will always want independence. You have to make sure that a part of this 75% or 80% does not go back to independence. If you reach agreements and incorporate a part of the pro-independence movement into the government and the institutions, it would be a success for coexistence. This is what the dialogue table is trying to do.
The young people who had been one of the most important supporters of independence are now distancing themselves from it.
TV3 has worked hard to unite the pro-independence movement.
There are spaces that bring cohesion. The most important space for cohesion is the media. Not only TV3, but also Catalunya Ràdio and RAC1. They are the ones that keep the 1,350,000-1,400,000 pro-independence supporters united. TV3 is the only television they watch. They have no contrast. When the FOX3 joke is made, it is not a joke. I recommend the series La voz más alta on Movistar, about the creation of Fox News. Its founding director, Roger Ailes, explains that it is not necessary to create a channel that produces information and competes with CNN, but a channel that creates opinion and gives arguments to conservatives and Republicans. It is clear that the Catalan public media have a Fox News logic. What they do is give opinions, arguments, and cohesion in their space. It is FOX3. Who gave the electoral victory to Bush Jr. in the 2000 elections? Fox News. It says that Florida belongs to George Bush. That he won. Who decides? Roger Ailes. When you have a public media with this conception, where do you cohere the pro-independence social space? In the news? Not only. In the afternoon programmes, in sports, in the Time slot. All the programmes are making opinion.
Lately, TV3 has been criticised by those close to JxCat, accusing it of benefiting ERC.
Yes, but they are still trying to keep the pro-independence space cohesive through the media. Hence the great battle over who controls what. When they were a bloc, control was not an issue. Now it will be.
It remains to be seen whether the law passed unanimously in the Catalan Parliament regulating the Catalan Audiovisual Media Corporation, which aims to prevent the political control of TV3 and Catalunya Ràdio, will be applied once and for all.
Alfons Quintà created a TV3 that he wanted to be the same as the homologated television stations (France 2, the BBC,…), which was not regional. He created a network of correspondents, with news, relatively pluralistic… This was totally destroyed in 2012, after the tripartite left the government. Then we entered into the logic of “I need a television and a radio station that coheses my space”. Recovering this means having a director who is not partisan, who is of consensus, that the news directors are also of consensus, that the newsroom assumes that they are not doing politics but that they are doing journalism. Therefore, to return to a television that recovers the share of those who have abandoned it.
The damage has already been done
The damage has already been done. It is very difficult to go back. But we have to try.
The report says that in autumn last year, 51.3% of Catalans wanted to be part of Spain and 41.8% were in favour of independence. This is a big difference compared to other polls.
The difference has been growing. If we look at the historical series, between 2013 and 2018, independence is superior to being part of Spain. Little by little the predominance of “I want to leave” is decreasing until the current difference. But there have been moments when “stay in Spain” falls. When you ask “what do you think Catalonia should be?”, the answer ‘an independent state’ still has 30%. Historically, autonomous community was at 60%, independence was at 14% and federal state, at 15%. A lot has changed. The “federal” concept, which nobody even considered 10 years ago, is now at 25%. The idea that there will be independence before federalism “will be no”. The data tell us that the future will be federal.
But it is also said that, if there were a referendum, 44.4% would vote in favour of independence and 33.3% would vote against it, while 18.5% would not vote. Could it be the case that the majority of Catalans do not want independence but that in a referendum those in favour of it would win?
Dichotomous questions are black and white, they do not describe the plurality of a society. In the case of a referendum, what would you vote? Yes or No? I have a theory about this kind of answer. There are many people who would say Yes, knowing that it is an answer without consequences. But it would be another thing if the referendum were called in two months’ time. Then it would be something tangible. But today, what is the consequence if I say I would vote Yes or No? None. It is a virtual debate. It is not real. I can say Yes today, say No in a month and say Yes again later. There is no consequence to what I say. You are asking people to define themselves on an assumption. On the other hand, when you ask “what do you think Catalonia should be”, the independent state falls and only the structural ones remain. If you add Autonomous Community, federalists and regionalists, you get 70%.
Part of the pro-independence electorate has discovered that the project is not independence and the republic but the war for hegemony.
Do citizens want a referendum?
Of those in favour of independence, only 9.1% believe that it is possible. Yes is a preference, but what counts is belief. In 1999, in Pasqual Maragall’s campaign, the polls said that voters preferred Maragall to be president, but when asked who they thought would be president, they said Pujol. The polls never gave a majority response that believed Maragall would be president. Now it is happening with independence. The Yes-No question should be placed in this logic. I prefer independence, but I don’t think it is possible.
Would pro-independence supporters accept a referendum with a different question or with several options?
The 9% that is the hard core, no. The vast majority of citizens want more independence. The vast majority of citizens want more self-government. Even the pro-independence supporters do not believe that independence is possible. Europe has said no. Spain has said no. As Puigdemont says, this is a wall, a wall. He has not overcome it. When he had the opportunity he didn’t take it. The opportunity was on 10 October, those eight seconds. I had never seen the promenade in front of the Parliament so full of televisions. That day the world was watching us. And that day it stopped looking at us. The message was: “I prefer it but I don’t believe it”.
On the social networks it seems that pro-independence is very much in the majority. This 9% is very noticeable
Because it is very well structured, built. When I was a councillor I was followed on Twitter and every time I made a message they automatically attacked me, they constantly counter-programmed me. It’s a very well-designed strategy. I’m not criticising it. Someone thought they had to control the networks. And they really do control them. It is a cohesive space, with a narrative, with messages. The other side is still a plural party system, where everyone is everyone. And everyone fights alone. This is the big difference.
Lately, however, in the networks there has also been a lot of stick between pro-independence supporters.
The pro-independence supporters are getting into a fight among themselves. The hegemony of independence will be played out in the municipal elections of 2023. The electoral campaign has already begun in this space. They are positioning themselves. They have to win in the territory. They will have to make a Jesuit policy where no word or concept can be interpreted in such a way that they lose a part of their electorate.
The hegemony of independence will be played out in the municipal elections of 2023.
And see where young people are going
The report says that most of them are not pro-independence. This was not the case before. We must also analyse the territory. The hegemony of pro-independence will be played out in inland Catalonia, what we might call Carlist Catalonia.
And the Catalans, as a whole, where do you think this process will go now?
Before an idea can crystallise in public opinion, a climate of opinion, an atmosphere, must first be created. Twenty years ago, when we talked about federalism, many people laughed. Little by little a climate has been created, an atmosphere that federalism is an alternative. Now we are 25%. We need a lot of patience. We have two years, maybe three or four. It depends on how the alternative to the referendum on self-determination is structured. For example, the 2006 Statute, which has more powers than many German lands and which is not fully activated. Of its 246 articles, the Constitutional Court amended some 40. In many cases these were nuances and some articles were actually unconstitutional. Artur Mas said that the Statute was untouchable but he went to Madrid, to negotiate through the back door that it was amended with the president of the government. The damage has already been done because a very negative climate was created. In four years, the ruling of the Constitutional Court did not help and the PP made a terrible campaign and an appeal that did not help. Anyway, let’s look to the future. Let’s look to the future. What does our report say? That 45.2% would like the process to end with an agreement with Spain to give Catalonia more self-government and that 42.2% believe it will end that way, while only 9.1% believe independence will be achieved. You already have the climate. Now what you have to do is to turn this climate into public opinion. You know that 9.1% will say no, but you have to govern for the rest. Do we want to vote? Then let’s vote. On what? Expanding self-government as a question, or are we going to ‘revote’ directly on the 2006 Statute, with the necessary improvements to adapt it to 2021 or 2023.
45.2% of Catalans want the process to end with an agreement that gives Catalonia more self-government.
And what do you think will happen?
I think we will vote. The mantra is that 80% want to vote. This is a survey, I think I remember, by Feedback, in La Vanguardia, in 2013. And they stuck with that 80%. Later polls have indicated a drop to 39% but the independentistas continue with the image of 80%. The pro-independence movement is very skilful. We have to recognise that they are great communication geniuses. They invent a special language: democratic mandate, democratic attack, right to decide… What did they say on election night? “We are 52%”. The real number is 27% of the electoral roll! But they sell that they are 52%, they explain it everywhere. They play at making the other side tired. And in the end you end up not even arguing. There is no joint strategy of the non-independence supporters so that every time they say they are 52% they answer that they are 27%. And let’s see who wins.
Will ERC withstand the pressure from Junts to take to the hills?
The 2023 municipal elections will tell us.
And before then?
Before that, things have to happen
Will Puigdemont return?
Puigdemont will not return. The Court of the European Union has to answer a preliminary ruling and the answer to this preliminary ruling will have consequences on the Belgian justice, which has done something that is not foreseen in the Euro-orders: a parallel trial.
So, there will be a referendum, but not on independence yes/independence no?
What happened in 2010? The ruling of the Constitutional Court is not, as they say, the beginning of independence. It has a much more serious element that nobody talks about, which is that the ruling is, in essence, the rupture of the founding pact of 1978. In 1978, there was a pact of consensus, of coexistence, of fitting in. A colleague of mine says that Catalonia became self-determined on 6 December 1978 when she decided to vote for the Constitution. The sentimental, emotional pact was broken with the ruling. At that moment, part of the country’s citizens feel that something has been broken between “them” and “us”. I entitled an article of mine on the procés “Crónica sentimental de un desamor”, following Vázquez Montalbán to some extent. Everything that is happening to us is because we don’t feel loved by Spain. What we had been – Olympic Games, design, reference,… -, that Spain looked up to us with admiration, was broken in 2010. We need more “affection”. I liked the fact that Pedro Sánchez ended his speech at the Liceu by saying “Catalonia, Catalans, Catalans, we love you”.
If Pedro Sánchez is no longer Prime Minister of Spain, these approaches that he explains will come to nothing.
Pedro Sánchez will continue. The referendum will surely be possible when Pedro Sánchez revalidates his majority. Before that it will not happen. It is not possible. There is no need to provoke the electorate before the general election with this issue. First the pandemic and the economy, then the Catalan solution. Besides, Spain will preside over the European Union in the second half of 2023S. The legislature will run out and elections will be called for 2024.
The referendum will surely pass when Pedro Sánchez revalidates his majority.
Do you rule out that PP and Vox could bring down the PSOE-Unidas Podemos government and come to power sooner?
Aznar, in 1989, has on his right a fragmentation of small parties that no longer exist -Unión Valenciana, PAR, UPN,…- that did not allow him to win. What does he do? It gobbles up everything. In order to win, the PP needs there to be no fragmentation in its space, from the centre to the extreme right, everything is PP. From 2006 onwards, it began to compete with Ciudadanos and then with Vox. Vox is the same phenomenon as Podemos. The economic crisis has created two new parties: one on the left, Podemos, which is the reaction of the socialist electorate to Rodríguez Zapatero’s change in economic strategy, and the other, Vox, which is the reaction to the PP government’s attitude towards the independentistas. We shall see what electoral volumes they have. Podemos gets, in 2015, 69 deputies, which is a barbarity from 0 to 69, and Vox gets 24 and increases 52 because Ciudadanos is sinking and because of the effect of the burnt city of Barcelona post-sentence. It is a false, emotional growth. The right does not have the deputies to be able to form a government.
Some polls give them a majority in Congress.
No way. The voters are what they are and the structures of the constituencies are what they are. The opposition never wins elections, the government loses them.
Whether progress is made on an agreement is and will be in the hands of Pedro Sánchez.
Yes, and Pere Aragonés. Two people are needed to dance. And Aragonés needs to consolidate his position as president. On the night of 14 February, the conclusion was that it was Puigdemont who had truly lost the elections. He had lost the political initiative, he was no longer the first party, he could no longer appoint a vicarious president and, therefore, he was no longer the “legitimate” president. The whole battle he mounted to see how he could influence the government of the Generalitat was lost. It was a major defeat. The more Pere Aragonés consolidates himself, the less decision-making power and influence Puigdemont will have. In two years we will see how the war in the pro-sovereignty space ends.
Would Pedro Aragonés consolidating his position be good for a solution to this dispute?
It is quite clear.