Junqueras skilfully surfs Catalan independence wave

Surging pro-independence leader outflanks moderate rival Mas as tension with Madrid increases

President of Catalonia Artur Mas (left) with leader of the Pro-Independence political party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya Oriol Junqueras, leaving the Catalan government building in Barcelona, Spain, this week. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

President of Catalonia Artur Mas (left) with leader of the Pro-Independence political party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya Oriol Junqueras, leaving the Catalan government building in Barcelona, Spain, this week. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

 

In a recent televised interview, as he talked about his hopes that Catalonia would one day gain independence from Spain, Oriol Junqueras’s eyes turned red, his voice cracked with emotion and he could barely finish his answer. The interviewer diplomatically cut in, but there was no hiding the fact the leader of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), the man many would bet on to be the first president of an independent state of Catalonia, had started to cry.

It was a moment that seemed to confirm both the hopes of his most loyal supporters and the fears of his staunchest critics: that Junqueras’s ambitions for secession from Spain are not some dry political strategy, but a passionate, almost visceral desire.

“He’s a fanatic, he lives in an ideal of 19th century romanticism,” says one Catalan politician who opposes independence. “Romanticism allied with nationalism is the most dangerous thing Europe saw in the 20th century . . . He’s a very dangerous character.”

And yet Junqueras, who combines his party leadership with his post as mayor of Sant Vicenç dels Horts, insists that those who label him a nationalist are mistaken.

“I’m not a nationalist, I’m pro-independence, which is different,” he told another interviewer recently. “Being pro-independence ends when you gain independence. Nationalism doesn’t end with independence or anything else.”

Amid the current climate of political tensions between the northeastern region and Madrid, such nuances are frequently ignored. But there is no denying the fact that the idea of breaking away from the Spanish state dominates the political ideology of both Junqueras (45) and the party he leads.

This bulky, bearded university lecturer, who relaxes by tending to the vegetables in his allotment, is neither telegenic nor prone to providing digestible soundbites. Yet since taking control of a listing ERC in 2011, Junqueras has turned the party’s fortunes around. In 2012’s regional elections, it made large gains in the Catalan parliament, firmly positioning itself as the region’s second political force, behind the moderate nationalists of Convergence and Union (CiU), led by regional premier Artur Mas.

Swelling wave

Since then, ERC’s rise has continued. Mas’s decision to ride a swelling wave of civic pro-independence feeling and organise a non-binding referendum on the issue on November 9th pushed the region’s fraught relationship with Spain to the forefront of the political agenda. This has benefited Junqueras, with a recent poll showing his party surging past Mas’s CiU, whose support for independence is less strident than that of ERC.

“Junqueras has imposed himself and has almost total control of his party,” says Josep Ramoneda, a Catalan writer and philosopher. “He’s shown considerable tactical ability, because he’s managed to ensure Artur Mas has got burned, without burning himself. On the contrary, he’s been thriving.”

In recent months, Junqueras’s profile has been particularly high, as he has campaigned in favour of the referendum project being led by Mas. With the November 9th vote deemed illegal by the Spanish government, Junqueras nonetheless urged the more cautious Mas to push ahead anyway. Mas’s much-criticised, rather confusing, solution was to call an alternative referendum for the same date.

On Friday, the Spanish government announced it would also seek to block that vote, a decision that is likely to heighten tensions further between Madrid and Catalonia.

Like many Catalans, Junqueras’s desire for independence is based on a mix of historical factors, economic arguments and the perception that Spain does not accept the unique culture and language of the region’s 7.5 million people.

He can barely contain his contempt for Madrid, which he describes in terms that come close to evoking a failed state. “I don’t like the fact that the Spanish state spends taxpayers’ money on building airports that don’t have aeroplanes, trains without passengers, or roads without cars,” he told a group of foreign journalists in Barcelona.

Junqueras peppers his answers with historical references and rhetorical questions. When asked by The Irish Times about his plans , he instinctively referred to Ireland’s historic general election of 1922 as an example of democracy in action, something he feels Spain is incapable of.

“When you’re prohibited from voting, you must vote,” he said. “It’s very easy. It’s very positive, it’s good, it helps, it’s right, it’s ethically impeccable and democratically recommendable. Because if they stop you from voting, what are they going to stop you from doing next?”

Firebrand rhetoric

And yet, Junqueras sometimes reins in the firebrand rhetoric, such as when he compares himself to the British prime minister, whose willingness to stage a referendum on Scottish independence many Catalans admired.

“We’re a party of the left, but we have an attitude that is as conservative, as moderate, as prudent as Mr Cameron,” he said.

Even before the central government said it would seek to thwart the November 9th alternative referendum, that vote’s significance was being overshadowed by the prospect of early regional elections. Mas has said he wants to hold an early ballot on a multi-party, pro-independence ticket, using it as a “definitive” plebiscite on a break from Spain.

With the already tense relations between Mas and Junqueras further complicated after the abandonment of the original referendum plan, it is still not clear when this highly anticipated election might take place.

Winner

While Junqueras would almost certainly emerge as the winner of such a vote, many believe he does not want to become regional premier of Catalonia – at least yet. The region’s finances are in a fragile state – with a €62 billion debt – and, as the writer and commentator Enric Juliana has pointed out, this is a situation Madrid could use to its advantage.

“It would be a nightmare and probably an absolute disaster for Oriol Junqueras to find himself in three months’ time as premier of the Catalan region and negotiating on the phone with the Spanish finance minister, Cristábal Montoro, over the payment of wages for Catalan civil servants,” Juliana noted.

Junqueras himself tactfully insists it is irrelevant whether or not he wins the next regional elections, saying: “The important thing is whether Catalonia, if its people wish, can become a republic.” But given his party’s current success, he may soon find it difficult to avoid taking charge of a Catalan region supervised by his adversary – the Spanish state.

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