Jordi Sànchez is cold. It is half past nine on this Friday morning in Barcelona, Sànchez has just come out of prison, he appears at the meeting in a shirt and a thin sweater. Now he is desperately trying to get the heating in the party headquarters going. He doesn’t have much time, he wants to win an election at the weekend, then he has to go back to his cell.
Jordi Sànchez is one of nine Catalans who have been sentenced to long prison terms for breaking laws in their struggle for an independent republic. The separatists call them “Presos politics”, political prisoners.
At the same time, Sànchez, as general secretary of Junts per Catalunya, leads the liberal-conservative separatist party in the regional election on Sunday. Sànchez is outdoors during the day and at the weekend. He then appears on marketplaces and stages, promoting the top candidate Laura Borràs. The party needs him as a symbolic figure.
“For me the election campaign is like an oxygen bubble,” he says. The prison is not a nice place.
Jordi Sànchez in the election campaign: symbolic figure
Photo: JOSEP LAGO / AFP
Sànchez became a hero of the separatists in the late summer of 2017. Sànchez whipped up the supporters of independence in Catalonia for months. As the head of the large civil society separatist organization ANC, he directed the mostly peaceful masses. The demonstrators prevented police from searching the Catalan Ministry of Economic Affairs on September 20. Pictures show Sànchez on a demolished police car. The officers did not dare to leave the building until the next day.
The campaign by Sànchez and his fellow campaigners presented Spain with a historic ordeal. On October 1, 2017, the Catalans voted in a referendum on independence, illegally if you will. The constitutional court had banned the vote. Regional President Carles Puigdemont proclaimed the republic and suspended the declaration seconds later. His speech was the culmination of a conflict that had shaped an entire decade: thousands of people cried for joy in the streets of Barcelona, others sat at home stunned and terrified.
Tears of joy for independence advocates: the climax of a conflict that has shaped an entire decade
Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP
Three and a half years later it is clear that the separatists have failed. The central government and the judiciary were ruthless. Jordi Sànchez was sentenced to nine years in prison for “riot”. Many of his colleagues are also in prison. Ex-President Puigdemont fled the Spanish judiciary to Brussels. Catalonia is still part of Spain today. The region has not even received additional self-government rights.
Separatists in crisis
Before the regional elections on Sunday, the Catalan nationalists are therefore in a crisis. The unsuccessful struggle for a republic of its own has worn down the supporters. Only 44.5 percent of Catalans are currently in favor of their own state. Many of them are frustrated because their leaders promised quick independence for years – and then didn’t deliver.
In the election it could be for the separatists despite the Rise of the Socialists barely enough to a majority. But they don’t know what they would do with power. The left-wing Republicans rely on negotiations with Madrid, the more radical camp around Puigdemont and Sànchez on confrontation.
The vote on Sunday is therefore pointing the way. The party that prevails on Sunday will want to determine the course for the next few years. In essence, it is about one question: Are the separatists de-escalating in the conflict with Madrid – or are they starting again?
Protests after the verdict against Catalan separatists: “We will do it again”
Photo: LLUIS GENE / AFP
Antonio García stands in the village square of the suburb of Sant Joan Despí and holds up the poster with the face of Jordi Sànchez. “Llibertat, presos polítics,” calls out the pensioner. Around a hundred people join in. Many are wearing a yellow ribbon on their lapels this Thursday evening, with the Estelada, the separatists’ flag, fluttering above them. Like almost every Thursday for 176 weeks.
Jordi Sànchez smiles when asked about the rallies. “To this day, people stop me on the street and break into tears,” he says. The prison sentences for him and his fellow activists would have caused collective pain.
If the radicals prevail, they would divide society even more
The independence movement uses the prison sentences of its leaders to mobilize its supporters. But in the middle of the pandemic, there are hardly more than a handful of people together, the exhaustion was already noticeable in the months before. Leading separatists fear that the protest could collapse if the left-wing government in Madrid pardons the prisoners. “Politically, that would be pretty bad for the movement,” they say.
“I don’t want to do everything the same as last time. I want to do better. ”
Separatistenführer Jordi Sànchez
The ERC’s left-wing Republicans are now campaigning for negotiations with the central government and more self-government. The party has accepted that it cannot simply force independence – especially not if not even half the population supports it. “We will always hold on to the dialogue, even if we are in prison,” says former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, although the judges also sentenced him to a long prison term.
Jordi Sànchez thinks the ERC’s calculation is nonsense. “ The Spanish state would not give in even if 70 percent of the Catalans are for independence,” he said in the party headquarters. In essence, his strategy is therefore the same as it was four years ago: through peaceful protest and civil disobedience, he wants to increase the pressure on the central state step by step, knowing full well that every form of state repression helps the separatists.
Policeman and voter on October 1st, 2017: “Our biggest mistake”
Photo: PAU BARRENA / AFP
“I don’t want to do everything the same as last time,” says Sànchez, “I want to do better.” The separatists’ biggest mistake was not to have occupied the streets of Barcelona after the police violence during the banned independence vote. Sànchez would rather force a new referendum than ask for it. His strategy would divide Catalan society even more.
In the polls, Junts per Catalunya has kept catching up in recent weeks. »ERC and Junts are campaigning for the same separatist voters. That has led to an outbid competition, «says Ignacio Molina, political scientist and analyst at the think tank Real Instituto Elcano. “When it comes to who is more nationalist, Junts has advantages as a more radical party.”
Molina therefore believes it is possible that Jordi Sànchez’s party could get as many votes as the ERC on Sunday. A few weeks ago that seemed unthinkable. Sànchez himself is convinced that this will happen. He wants to go to the theater again on Saturday – and return to prison on Monday as the winner of the election.
Icon: The mirror