Attacking Catalonia, the Spanish government gets filthier

Protesters outside Catalonia's parliament on January 30 in support of the parliament's right to elect its president in the face of intimidation and threats.

Early on January 30, Roger Torrent, speaker of the Catalan parliament elected on December 21, suspended that day’s session, which had been set to elect outgoing president Carles Puigdemont as head of the new Catalan government.

The decision of Torrent, leading member of the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), came after the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled two days earlier that electing the exiled Puigdemont could not take place in absentia.

Moreover, as someone facing charges of “rebellion” and “sedition”, Puigdemont would need the permission of Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena — author of the preventive detention of other Catalan MPs — to attend the investiture session.

Finally, if Torrent and the Catalan parliament’s speakership panel went ahead with the investiture session in violation of these conditions, they would incur penal sanctions.

Spectre haunting Madrid

If January 30 had been a normal investiture session, Puigdemont’s election would have been a formality. As leader of the party Together For Catalonia (JxCat) that had scored most seats within the 70-seat pro-independence majority, he had the support of the other pro-independence forces, the centre-left ERC and the anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP).

He also faced no rival from the 57-seat unionist minority of Citizens, the People’s Party (PP) and the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).

Even in the extraordinary situation of detention and exile for eight Catalan MP sand the Spanish government’s October 27 sacking of the Catalan government, Puigdemont was still sure of a 68-vote majority in the 135-seat Catalan chamber.

Only one issue remained unresolved: would Puigdemont be able to deliver his investiture address by video link from his Brussels exile or have it delivered for him by another MP? Or would he try to get back into the Catalan parliament by stealth?

On January 15, the legal counsel of the Catalan parliament had delivered a majority opinion against investiture in absentia. However, the final word lay with the speakership panel, on which JxCat and ERC have a majority.

If the panel ruled that Puigdemont could be invested in absentia, then he would be — even though the pro-Spanish unionist parties said they would immediately appeal the decision to the Spanish Constitutional Court.

Days of panic

The prospect of Puigdemont, a symbol of Catalonia’s independence struggle, returning as head of government panicked all wings of the Spanish establishment, from Madrid’s PP administration to the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the new-right Citizens.

If the Catalan parliament backed Puigdemont as president, how could he be removed? On what grounds could Spanish King Felipe formally refuse to recognise their parliament’s decision? Could the ongoing support of the European institutions for Spain’s handling of its Catalan headache be guaranteed in such a situation?

It was clear to the government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that it had no choice: it had to block the investiture of the man it was deriding as a “political zombie” even as it obsessed over how to exorcise him.

Former PSOE leader Alfredo Rubalcaba stated clearly in a January 26 interview: “Puigdemont cannot be president and what we are discussing now is how to stop that at the lowest cost.”

To prevent the “zombie” returning by stealth, interior minister Jose Ignacio Zoido had the Civil Guard and Spanish National Police set up road blocks, check car boots, keep minor airports under surveillance and scour the sewers under the Catalan parliament. Civil Guard teams even entered French territory without permission to conduct searches.

On January 25, Spanish deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, in charge of operations in Catalonia, announced that she was reversing the Rajoy government’s usual approach of waiting for the Catalan parliament to act before appealing decisions.

Instead, it sought the endorsement of Spain’s highest legal consultative body, the Council of State, to seek a preventive injunction against Puigdemont’s investiture from the Constitutional Court. The grounds were that he was an “outlaw” lacking “liberty of movement”.

Much to the horror of Rajoy and company, the Council of State recommended they not seek the injunction as it had no solid legal basis.

If the Constitutional Court upheld such an injunction, that body would be assuming the right to decide which elected candidates a parliament could and couldn’t appoint to positions of office after they had been elected.

Constitutional Court

However, the Rajoy government ignored this advice and ploughed ahead with its appeal. Saenz de Santamaria reportedly rang up various Constitutional Court members to stress the vital importance of their decision.

Media reports said the 12-member court was split seven-five on whether to admit the government’s appeal. To avoid further deepening the political crisis with a split ruling, the court decided to postpone a decision for 10 days. At the same time, it spelled out the impossible conditions on which Puigdemont’s investiture could still go ahead.

The Constitutional Court thus gave the Rajoy government what it wanted while dodging a decision on its legal application: Puigdemont could attend the investiture and end up in jail, or stay in Belgium and make any investiture illegal.

The court’s decision, already criticised by numerous Spanish jurists, will doubtless be appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Its violation of the separation of powers and the sovereignty of the Catalan parliament will be laid bare.

Not that Rajoy and Saenz de Santamaria care: their game is to force the pro-independence bloc to abandon Puigdemont and cop the humiliation of Madrid determining who can and can’t be a candidate for president of Catalonia.

To close any remaining loopholes, on February 1 Spanish attorney-general Rafael Catala announced that his government would make use of legislation preventing anyone simply awaiting trial for “rebellion” from standing for public office.

Pro-independence tensions

Torrent’s decision to suspend the investiture — taken without consulting other pro-independence parties and protested by them — may show that Madrid’s approach of constantly intensifying intimidation is having some success.

It is raising tensions between JxCat and an ERC convinced that the most important priority is to recover Catalan self-rule, even at the cost of dropping Puigdemont.

On the evening of January 30, Puigdemont issued a video statement in which he said that Torrent’s decision “had to be respected”, but that “democracy cannot be adjourned or suspended”.

For their part, the unionist parties and Catalonia Together-Podemos (which supports Catalonia’s right to self-determination, but not independence), supported the speaker’s decision.

On the day, a large demonstration outside the Catalan parliament, called by the mass pro-independence organisations Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural, demanded the investiture go ahead. At one point, a group of demonstrators broke through police lines in an attempt to get into the parliament building.

Inside, the four CUP MPs occupied their places in protest against the suspension of the session.

The day afterwards, the ANC national secretariat called for unity of the pro-independence majority in support of investing an agreed candidate. The statement affirmed the ANC would only mobilise outside the Catalan parliament in support of a real investiture — and committed to “returning to the streets if we see that the [Spanish] state or its courts paralyses the investiture”.

On January 31, at a public meeting in Louvain, a text message from Puigdemont on the phone of exiled health minister Toni Comin (ERC) was surreptitiously photographed over his shoulder by Spanish channel Tele 5.

It read in part: “We are living through the last days of republican Catalonia. The Moncloa’s [Spanish PM’s headquarters] plan wins. I only hope that it’s real and that thanks to this everyone can get out of jail because, if not, the historical ridicule really is historic.

“I suppose that you see clearly that this is finished. Our people have sacrificed us. Well me at least.

“You people will be ministers (as I hope and wish for), but I’ve already been sacrificed just as Tardà suggested.”

Puigdemont later tweeted in response to the publication of the text: “I’m human and there are moments when I too have doubts. But I’m also the president and I won’t ever fold or take a step backwards, out of respect, gratitude and commitment to the citizens and the country. We keep going!”

The same day, the Party for Catalonia (PxCat) parliamentary caucus reaffirmed its support for Puigdemont’s candidacy, as did the CUP.

Strategic questions

Torrent had justified his decision to suspend the January 30 session on the grounds that he wanted to ensure a “real investiture” for Puigdemont.

However, whatever the chances of this scenario coming about, it will still not solve the basic problem weighing on the independence movement: it needs an agreed strategy for disobedience against a Spanish state that is moving every piece at its disposal — the courts, the media, the monarchy and its loyal backers in the European Commission — to demoralise and tame the Catalan movement.

This is all the more so  because the Spanish government is moving to invalidate the vote of MPs facing charges, killing off the pro-independence majority while simultaneously trying to frighten it with the prospect of another election.

Only persistent, patient and organised resistance by the whole of the pro-independence bloc — determined to assert the sovereignty of the Catalan parliament within the institution itself and in the streets — can ensure that the result of the December 21 election stands.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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