The origins: Esquerra, the catalyst of Catalan republican movement

Esquerra Republicana is a left-wing party which defends the independence of the Catalan nation and social justice. Founded in 1931, throughout its more than 80 years of history it has experienced very different fortunes in parallel to the recent history of Catalonia and the whole of the Catalan Lands, or Països Catalans (Catalonia, Northern Catalonia, Valencia Region, Balearic Islands and the Western Strip).

The origins of Esquerra Republicana lie in the republican and federal movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The way in which Catalan society transformed in the 19th century as a result of the Industrial Revolution caused the appearance of the first democratic and republican progressist and federalist social movements. At the same time, the Renaissance cultural and literary movement of the early 19th century started the development of a national awareness closely followed by European Romanticism. Politically, the federal republican Congress in 1883 and the establishment of the Bases of Manresa in 1892 were the first two Catalan political movements with clearly nationalist intentions.

In March 1931, at the end of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) appeared as a confluence of the nationalist and left-wing sectors aiming to form a common front against a Spanish state contrary to the interests of the Catalan popular classes and blocked in the past. The new party presided by Francesc Macià resulted from the union of Estat Català, the Partit Republicà Català and the group Opinió, and played a central role in the establishment of the Republic in Catalonia and Spain.

The most important elements of the ideas behind the new party were the recognition of Catalonia as a nation, the defence of people’s individual rights and the redistribution of wealth, whereas the social programme defended full union freedom, the right to strikes, the defence of minimum salaries, the eight-hour working day, compulsory holidays, insurance and retirements as well as professional training centres.

In the municipal elections of April 1931, ERC was victorious in Catalonia and Francesc Macià proclaimed the Catalan Republic. The republican forces won throughout the state, with which Macià negotiated the new self-government of Catalonia. Macià agreed to restore the Generalitat de Catalunya, the name of the institution of Catalan government suppressed in 1714, and the Catalan Statute of Autonomy was approved, which included some of the institutions of self-government lost by Catalonia in the War of Succession (1705-1714).

In the years of the Republic (1931-1939), ERC was overwhelmingly the majority party in Catalonia and won all of the elections that were held. Francesc Macià died in 1933 and was succeeded by Lluís Companys as the President of the Generalitat de Catalunya, or Government of Catalonia. Companys proclaimed the Catalan State in 1934 in a context of involution of the Spanish right wing and risk of a military coup. As a result, Companys was imprisoned and the Generalitat was abolished, until the victory of the Front d’Esquerres in 1936 brought him out of prison.

Resisting through the darkest ages: Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship

Though failing in Catalonia, the uprising of the Spanish military against the democratic order of the Second Republic started the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). During those years, Lluís Companys was the President of the Generalitat and ERC played a key role in the Generalitat government along with other political and social forces.

The victory of General Franco’s troops brought the war to an end and started a bloody dictatorship inspired by fascism. President Lluís Companys was arrested by the Gestapo in France and handed over to the Spanish government, which put him before the firing squad on the mountain of Montjuïc in October 1940 in an unprecedented action. He is the only president of a democratically elected government in the world ever to be executed.

Esquerra Republicana suffered the repression of the Francoist dictatorship (1939-1975) just like the whole of Catalan society. Half of the 70,000 ERC militants sought exile and a quarter were imprisoned, executed or killed in the war. ERC set up the government in exile and maintained a very small clandestine activity in Catalonia, consisting of participating in all united initiatives of opposition to the dictatorship.

On a more minor scale, in the seventies the first formulae of a modern Marxist independen¬ce movement appeared, inspired by the colonial national freedom movements. These tendencies came to shape numerous independentist and left-wing organisations of different political shades which came together to form Esquerra Republicana in the nineties.

Struggling in democracy: rising from its ashes

The severity of the political and social repression and the demographic, social and economic changes experienced by Catalan society virtually caused the disappearance of the party. In 1977, in the first elections after the dictatorship, ERC was not able to take part directly as it had not been legalised.

In Catalonia and throughout the Spanish state, a new system of parties appeared and ERC played a very small role in comparison with the hegemony of the 1930s. The new political forces drew up and defended a Spanish constitution against which ERC voted because it failed to accept the republican principles or the people’s right to self-determination.

The so-called Spanish democratic transition consisted of an agreement between the remains of Francoism and the democratic opposition. The Francoist regime was not officially condemned, even though it had risen up against the democratic regime of the Second Republic. There was no recognition of the victims of the dictatorial repression and nobody has yet been tried for the crimes committed by Francoism or for its breach of individual and collective human rights.

The most flagrant example appears in the trial of President Companys, which the Spanish State has repeatedly refused to annul. In addition to a total lack of procedural guarantees, the very brief war trial which condemned him to the firing squad was a condemnation of democracy and the whole of the Catalan people. At the end of 2013, ERC brought a suit against the Spanish State before Argentine justice, accusing it of crimes against humanity for the assassination of the president of the Republican Generalitat government. The lawsuit was admitted and a further 200 suits were added for those murdered by the Francoist regime. The ignorance of historical memory was one of the basic features of the transition agreement, unlike the processes of historical review conducted in Germany, Italy and South Africa.

With President Tarradellas’s return from exile, the Generalitat government was restored and a new statute of autonomy was drawn up for Catalonia. ERC opposed the text as something which gave little support to autonomy, but ended up defending the yes vote in the referendum. In the first elections to the Catalan Parliament after the dictatorship, ERC achieved 14 of the 135 members, although in successive elections it dropped severely and lost its representation in the Chambers of Madrid. The centre-right wing Convergència i Unió, which has won all of the Catalan elections, led the creation and consolidation of the autonomic institutions through agreements with the different governments of Madrid.

In the 1990s, ERC strengthened its position as an independentist party by proposing the creation of an independent state as part of Europe. Gathering together the different political sectors of the independentist movement, it progressively increased its electoral weight and was consolidated as the third political force behind the central-right wing Convergència i Unió (CiU) and the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC–PSOE) Socialist party. On the municipal level, it also achieved a broad representation of councillors and mayors throughout Catalonia.

In the late 1990s, the independentist discourse took on a greater social slant, reaching new social sectors previously removed from the party. This brought ERC up to 545,000 votes and 23 members in the Catalan parliament, the best result since the Republic. At the same time, the party’s decisive position enabled the creation of the first Catalanist left-wing government since the Republic along with the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalonia (PSC-PSOE) and Iniciativa per Catalunya-Verds (ICV) parties. It was also in 2003 when Esquerra Republicana del País Valencià (ERPV) appeared locally in the Valencia Region and achieved its first councillors in Sueca, Xixona and Barxeta.

In Catalonia, the so-called tripartit (three-party) government put forward a broad social programme whose main goal was the reformation of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy and the financing system of the Generalitat government. ERC played a decisive role in this government and held several ministries (including Education, Welfare and Family, Trade, Governance, and Universities).

When the Catalan parliament approved the Statute with a broad consensus, the agreement between CiU and the PSOE in Madrid had it considerably curtailed on its way through the Spanish governmental process. In the referendum for its approval, ERC called for a vote against it, bringing the party out of the government and causing early elections.

Though losing votes, Esquerra Republicana achieved an important result in these elections (416,000 votes and 21 seats) and the “progress pact” was repeated with PSC-PSOE and ICV-EUiA. In the following elections in 2010, the electorate punished ERC, which lost almost half of its votes with respect to 2006 (219,000) and eleven seats and these results were repeated in the different elections. CiU returned to the Generalitat government after 7 years in opposition.

At the same time, in 2007, Esquerra Republicana took part in the autonomic elections in the Balearic Islands in association; in Majorca with PSM, IU and Els Verds and in Ibiza with PSOE, IU and ENE. In addition to several municipal representatives, these elections gave Esquerra Republicana a representative in the Parliament of the Balearic Islands and an elected Councillor on Majorca Council (Consell de Mallorca). The forces of progress achieved a majority that enabled several Esquerra Republicana representatives to be in the autonomic government, the government of the Consell de Mallorca and the government of Palma. In December 2009, Esquerra Republicana left the government of the island of Majorca when its partners broke the pact of government and the code of ethics approved by the forces of progress, when corruption affected one of its associates.

Esquerra, pushing tirelessly the Catalan process towards independence

With the arrival of Oriol Junqueras as the President of Esquerra Republicana in 2011, a new stage of unity was started in which Esquerra Republicana works with civil society to achieve the objective of Catalan inde­pendence. The enormous demonstration on 11 Sep­tember 2012 in Barcelona, organised by the Catalan National Assembly, triggered the calling of elections on 25 November and started a new stage marked by the right to decide on the political agenda.

Esquerra Republicana obtained 496,000 votes in these elections and became the second block in the Parliament with 21 seats. These results made Oriol Junqueras the head of the opposition and allowed an agreement to be signed with CiU to give parliamentary support to the government of Artur Mas. The main aim of this agreement was to call a popular consultation for self-determination in 2014 and to bring social change into the policy of economic austerity of the Generalitat.

Esquerra Republicana ran in the next elections for the Catalan Parliament, held on 27 September 2015 explicitly as exceptional and declared a plebiscite, integrated with the coalition Junts pel Sí. This unique coalition, that united diverse political forces and that had the support of the main entities of civil separatism, triumphed with a total of 62 members of parliament and more than 1,628,000 votes, 39.59 percent of the total.

The formation of the Government stemming from those elections, presided by Carles Puigdemont, was made possible by the agreement between Junts pel Sí and 10 more members of parliament chosen from a left-wing separatist list. Oriol Junqueras was named Vice President of the Government and Minister of Economy. Right from the start, and to a great extent thanks to the leadership of Junqueras, that Government of Catalonia worked to open up an avenue for dialogue with the Spanish Government to reach a political agreement through which the Catalan population could freely and peacefully exercise the right to self-determination. Only the authoritarian refusal of the Spanish Government can explain the referendum for self-determination that, in very difficult conditions and with a situation of police violence that is inappropriate in a Western European State and injured more than a thousand people, took place in Catalonia on Sunday 1 October 2017. That referendum had a turnout of almost 2,300,000 people and the yes to independence was supported by 90.18 percent of the voters.

The Spanish Government's reaction to the referendum of 1 October 2017 was furious: persecution of the president of Parliament and the members of the Catalan Government (some are currently in prison, such as the president of ERC Oriol Junqueras, and others are forced to remain in exile) and of the most representative leaders of civil separatism, legal persecution of mayors, local elected officials, individual citizens and entities that had been actively involved in the referendum and the return of old forms of far-right vigilante violence against supporters of Catalan independence. And, above all, the suspension, through application of very doubtful legality of article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, of the Catalan institutions of self-government, that were taken under the command of the Spanish Government; in the hands of high-level State civil servants with no knowledge of the country or any sensitivity to the needs of the citizens.

Despite all this, the elections held in Catalonia by the Spanish Government on 21 December 2017, with the main leaders of the Catalan Government in prison or in exile and the separatist parties in a state of shock due to the repression suffered, the parties supporting the Catalan Republic again saw unquestionable triumph that, adding the members of Parliament of the three separatist candidate groups that stood, maintained the situation of separatist parliamentary majority that there was before the application of article 155. ERC has a total of 32 members in the Parliament of Catalonia.

ERC currently forms part of the Government of Catalonia (its highest representative is the Vice President and Minister of Economy, Pere Aragonès) despite its president, Oriol Junqueras, being in prison and its General Secretary, Marta Rovira, in exile.