Podemos and the Catalan cause

New social movements have rattled Spain’s two-party system.

The new mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau waves to the people as she crosses Sant Jaume square to meet Catalonia''s regional president at the Generalitat palace [AFP]
Ada Colau waves to the people as she crosses Sant Jaume square to meet Catalonia's regional president [AFP]

Spain’s 2015 King’s Cup final, played on May 30 between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, will long be remembered for the astonishing first goal that Lionel Messi scored, weaving past four Bilbao defenders before striking home. Yet Spanish newspapers are still buzzing about another episode from the final – and that is the booing of the Spanish national anthem that took place in the presence of King Felipe VI.

The booing and jeering of the young king – in power for less than a year – by Catalan and Basque fans struck a political nerve. The ruling Popular Party (PP) is now pushing to introduce a “series of legal changes” to punish public contempt for the anthem. The head of the Socialist Party, Pedro Sanchez, called the Spanish monarch to express his regret. 

This isn’t the first time that the Spanish national anthem has been booed during a sporting event in the Catalan capital. When the anthem was drowned out with whistles and jeers in the 2009 King’s Cup final, a ruling from the Spanish High Court stated that the booing was defensible as freedom of expression.

Anti-austerity parties make gains in Spanish elections

But in light of the elections of May 24, the jeers at Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium were seen as an indicator of Spain’s severe fragmentation along party and nationalist lines.

Drive for independence

Analysts are wondering how the rise of new political movements such as the leftist Podemos and the centre-right Ciudadanos will affect Catalonia’s drive for independence.

Indeed, the one politician who wasn’t too troubled by the booing and show of Catalan nationalism was Artur Mas – the president of the Generalitat, the government of Catalonia – who is leading the push for independence. He said such whistling is “normal” given the context, and warned that efforts to criminalise booing of the national anthem will only have a “boomerang effect”.

In last month’s local and municipal elections the reigning Popular Party won the most votes with 27 percent, beating the Socialist party, which got 25 percent. But both parties lost votes to Ciudadanos and Podemos, and failed to achieve majorities in a number of regions.

The one politician who wasn’t too troubled by the booing and show of Catalan nationalism was Artur Mas…


The Popular Party suffered its worst electoral result in more than two decades – losing its majority in Madrid and ceding Barcelona’s city council to Ada Colau, an activist allied with the anti-austerity Podemos. Six months before the national elections of November 2015, these new social movements have rattled Spain’s two-party system.  

The political shock has been felt perhaps most sharply in Catalonia. Colau’s victory in Barcelona was promptly (and correctly) seen as a setback by the Catalan independence activists. In taking the mayorship of Barcelona, Colau defeated the Convergence and Union – an alliance of pro-independence groups led by Artur Mas.

Economic issues

Mas, who has long warned that losing the regional capital could undermine the cause of independence, has now called for early regional elections in September – to shore up his political base and show the country that his separatist project still has popular backing. He has even agreed to work with the Catalan Republic Left.

Colau is not opposed to Catalonia’s right to vote for independence, but her coalition Barcelona en Comu includes groups that are flatly opposed to secession. Moreover, her movement was forged around economic issues – inequality, unemployment, and corruption. She came to prominence after all as a housing activist defending families who had defaulted on mortgages, from being evicted by private banks.

President of the Catalunya Generalitat regional government Artur Mas [AFP]
President of the Catalunya Generalitat regional government Artur Mas [AFP]

Colau voted for Catalan independence in the unofficial referendum of last November, but now in her position as mayor-elect, is saying that she has “a serious commitment to the right to decide” – but will not commit to any road map “not appropriate for us“. She has rebuffed appeals from the Catalan Republic Left to support a sovereignty platform.

Colau’s new position is affected not only by her proximity to local anti-independence groups, but also by her broader alliance with Podemos, which has a similar position.

Pablo Iglesias of Podemos has spoken sympathetically of the Catalan nationalist movement, and promised that if in power, he would enact a constitutional reform that would grant the “right to decide” on the secession question, but insists that he is for a unified, “pluri-national” Spain. He has said: “I do not want Catalonia to leave Spain.”

Flurry of activity

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of activity and speculation as leaders of the Socialist Party and Podemos – erstwhile adversaries – met to discuss alliances to drive the PP out of power in various regions and municipalities.

A deal between Podemos and the Socialists could bring left-wing majorities to power in six or seven regions of the country and more than 8,000 towns and cities. Iglesias and Sanchez seem particularly focused on driving the PP out of power in Madrid, a conservative stronghold dominated by the Popular Party since 1991.

When the Socialists declared that they would support Ahora Madrid (a grassroots coalition similar to Barcelona en Comu) and its candidate Manuela Carmena, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned that the detente between the Socialists and Podemos was a “grave mistake” that was “very bad” for Spain’s economic recovery.

Iglesias and Sanchez in turn have been decidedly reticent about their talks saying that little has come out of their meetings, and they mostly discussed their other common interest: basketball.

Hisham Aidi teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, a study of black internationalism and global youth culture.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.