Catalonia has been plunged into turmoil again by Spain’s removal of its regional president, Quim Torra, and his separatist party’s refusal to call a snap election.
The Spanish Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Torra violated electoral law, paving the way for his immediate removal as the region’s separatist leader.
The court upheld last year’s regional court ruling that Torra was guilty of disobedience for taking three days to remove banners and yellow ribbons draped on public buildings in support of jailed pro-independence leaders during an election campaign in 2019, in defiance of the election commission.
The lower court had banned him from public office for 18 months and fined him €30,000 plus the legal costs of the trial. In his appeal, Torra argued that his decision not to remove the symbols immediately was “political” rather than “administrative” and should be protected by the right to freedom of expression.
The Supreme Court rejected his appeal unanimously. In the ruling, judge Juan Ramón Berdugo said that, as a writer and lawyer, Torra had “above-average education and knowledge of the law” and was fully aware of the consequences of his actions. The Supreme Court also made it clear that the ban extends to public roles both in Spain and elsewhere in the EU, including being an MEP — the career path followed by Torra’s predecessor Carles Puigdemont after being ousted from office by Madrid for unilaterally declaring the independence of Catalonia in 2017.
Torra’s removal from office came into force Monday afternoon. His lawyers plan to take the fight to the country’s Constitutional Court and eventually to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that it is a breach of Torra’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression and to an impartial tribunal.
In a written statement, Torra said the courts had “disrupted the normal functioning” of the Catalan institutions, “forcing the Catalan administration into a provisional situation which the citizens of this country don’t deserve and in the midst of a pandemic.”
“In Spain, the thirst for revenge is greater than respect for people’s health and lives, or for the survival of companies and jobs,” he wrote. “The Spanish state has once again forced Catalonia into an exceptional situation, while the European Union remains inexplicably passive.”
Speaking at a press conference hours later, Torra encouraged supporters to respond with “more civil disobedience.”
“Let’s get ready for a democratic, peaceful and disobedient break [with Spain],” he said.
Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha González defended the separation of powers in the country, and said that “all of us are obliged to respect the law.”
The Committees for the Defense of the Republic, a network of Catalan pro-independence grassroots groups, called for marches to be held in Barcelona Monday evening. Spain’s Interior Ministry is relocating 500 police officers to Catalonia, amid fears that this could escalate into riots of the magnitude seen in October 2019, when 12 separatist leaders were convicted on charges including sedition, disobedience and the misuse of public funds for their involvement in the failed independence bid of 2017.
The verdict is one of several factors that could precipitate political change in Catalonia.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist party and the conservative Popular Party, the country’s main opposition group, said regional elections should be called immediately.
However, Torra stood firm in his refusal to call a snap election that would enable a quick replacement, arguing that would be equal to a surrender. By law, if the Catalan parliament fails to elect a replacement in the coming months, that would automatically trigger a regional election, likely to take place in early 2021.
Even though Torra’s removal from office could spur support for his Together for Catalonia (JxCat) party, it also puts its coalition partner, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), in the limelight, since Pere Aragonès, Catalonia’s deputy president and leader of the ERC, is due to take the reins as interim president until an election takes place.
Since the failed independence bid in 2017, JxCat has maintained its hardline separatist stance, while the ERC has refused to continue to push for declaring independence unilaterally in the short-term. With its former leader Oriol Junqueras in prison, the ERC has sought to build bridges with Madrid. It not only cleared the way for Sánchez to form a coalition government with the far left in February, but it is also in talks with the prime minister’s team over its support for Sánchez’s national budget.
The ERC could receive a further boost ahead of an election if Junqueras were to be released from prison in the coming months. In a surprise announcement last week, Spain’s Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo said the government had initiated the process to pardon the jailed Catalan leaders, including Junqueras. In parallel, it has set out plans to carry out a substantial review of Spain’s criminal law concerning the crime of sedition, which could lead to the shortening of their prison sentences.
Both processes have raised hopes within the ERC that Junqueras could leave prison in time to campaign in the coming election, even though he won’t be able to run as a candidate.
Bernat Solé, minister for foreign policy in the Catalan government and member of ERC, downplayed the internal divisions in the Catalan government, saying the two separatist parties “share a common goal” and have reached an agreement to stay united until a new government is elected.
Although Monday’s verdict targets the leader of JxCat, it is the ERC that faces the most tumultuous road ahead. The path toward an electoral win will depend on maintaining a dialogue with Madrid without antagonizing its separatist base.
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