New Catalan president commits to ‘build republic’ as strains show in Spanish unionism

May 17, 2018
Catalan MPs applaud Quim Torra after a speech in parliament on May 12.

The Catalan parliament finally voted in a new president on May 14, 199 days after the pro-independence bloc held on to its majority at the December 21 elections imposed by the Spanish government.

Quim Torra, MP for Together For Catalonia (JxCat), headed by exiled outgoing president Carles Puigdemont, was invested as head of government by 66 votes to 65, with four abstentions.

On the first round of the investiture, held on May 12, the same vote was inadequate because an absolute majority of 68 was required.

The votes in favour came from JxCat and its ally in government, the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). Seven of the votes were delegated by jailed and exiled MPs.

The votes against came from the militantly centralist new right formation Citizens, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP) and the Catalan branch of the People’s Party (PP), which rules in the Spanish state.

The four abstentions were those of the anti-capitalist pro-independence People’s Unity List (CUP). By abstaining, the CUP guaranteed the relative majority needed in the second round for Torra to be invested.

At the same time, the CUP announced that it would be going into opposition against a government whose commitment to “disobedience” and “unfolding the Republic” it doubts.

The day before, the CUP’s National Political Council (CPN), meeting at the request of three of the anti-capitalist force’s 13 territorial assemblies, voted 40 to 24 to facilitate Torra’s accession. A second vote on how to do this — via support or abstention — was 59 for abstention and three for support.

This decision reaffirmed the CUP’s position of abstaining on the investiture of any JxCat candidate other than Puigdemont.

Two other potential obstacles to the investiture had previously been overcome.

First, the Spanish PP government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy decided not to appeal against the decision of the Catalan parliament’s speakership panel to allow the delegation of the votes of Puigdemont and exiled health minister Toni Comín.

Citizens and the PP appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court, but that body ruled against provisional suspension of this right while their appeals were being heard.

As the court usually suspends the applications of decisions when the Spanish government is the appellant, the Rajoy government’s decision not to appeal was attacked by Citizens as allowing the pro-independence forces to keep their majority in the Catalan parliament.

Second, the membership of the small pro-independence party Democrats, which forms part of the ERC caucus, voted overwhelmingly to back the investiture of Torra.

A win for ‘the law’?

On the surface, Torra’s investiture might be interpreted as a win for the Spanish government. It successfully prevented the investiture of “people facing criminal charges” — Puigdemont and then JxCat’s two replacement candidates, jailed former Catalan National Congress president Pedro Sánchez and minister of state Jordi Turull.

However, after the past two hundred days of vain judicial and political efforts to tame the Catalan movement, the political balance is tilting increasingly against Madrid and the political cost of such ”wins” keeps growing.

A turning point was the April 5 ruling of the Higher Regional Court of German state Schleswig-Holstein not to accede to the arrest warrant for “rebellion” issued against Puigdemont.

This decision not only put the legal arguments of Spanish Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena, issuer of the warrant, in the spotlight; it also exposed before a broader European audience the Rajoy government’s basic method for dealing with the Catalan crisis — to treat it as a police matter to be handled by a compliant Spanish legal system.

The tactics of JxCat have been directed at increasing that exposure. By proposing first Sánchez and then Turull as substitute presidential candidates to Puigdemont, Llarena was forced to produce two bizarre rulings. The first prevented Sánchez from being allowed to leave jail to appear before the parliament (despite a precedent to the contrary in the Basque parliament); the second returned Turull to jail to prevent his election.

When the Catalan parliament next passed an amendment to the investiture law that would have allowed Puigdemont to be invested in absentia, the Rajoy government appealed to the Constitutional Court, which provisionally suspended it.

Torra, an editor, journalist and business lawyer, was then chosen by Puigdemont as JxCat’s fourth candidate, with the goal of his investiture being held before May 22, the day on which new elections would have had to be called.

On March 16, two days after Torra’s investiture, the Spanish establishment suffered a further setback when the Belgian courts considering the warrant for the extradition of Comín and former ministers Meritxell Serret (agriculture) and Lluís Puig (culture) declined to send them back because of technical defects in the warrant issued by Llarena.

‘Xenophobic, racist and supremacist’

Who, then, is Torra? Inés Arrimades, leader of the opposition and head of Citizens in the Catalan parliament, gave this viewpoint on March 14: “We have before us at the head of the Catalan government a person whose ideology is perfectly clear from his articles: an ideology that defends xenophobia, that defends an exclusionary identity, that defends populism.”

Arrimadas quoted from a piece by Torra called “The Language and the Beasts”, in which he said: “You look at your country now and you see the beasts talking, but they are of another kind, scavengers, vipers, hyenas, beasts in human shape that drool hatred … against everything that the language, the Catalan language, represents … [T]hey recoil from everything that is not Spanish and in Castilian.”

Arrimades quoted another line from Torra: “Our nation is threatened by the avalanche of immigration with being dissolved like a sugar cube in a glass of milk.”

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau had previously commented on Facebook: “For me and millions of people it is important to know if someone who is standing as a candidate for the presidency thinks that there are first and second class Catalans according to where they were born or what language they speak.”

In the first investiture session, CatECP leader Xavier Domènech asked Torra: “In Catalonia today around 70% of the population feels Spanish with greater or lesser intensity. What do you think today about ‘the Spanish’?”

On May 12, Torra said he apologised if his comments had caused offence, but did not answer Domènech’s question.

Torra repeated his apology on May 14 and added: “What I want [the Catalan Republic] is what I want for everyone, the freedom I want for my own people I want for all peoples. And for the Spanish people and for the Catalan people, freedom has the name of republic, Catalan Republic and Spanish Republic.”

This will not be enough, however. Torra’s outpourings are too precious a gift for the parties of the Spanish establishment, intent on denying the Catalan right to self-determination and keeping the incoming Catalan government on the shortest possible leash.

On March 15, after meeting with prime minister Rajoy to come up with a joint approach to the ongoing Catalan rebellion (including maintaining control of Catalan government finances), leader of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) Pedro Sánchez announced that the last point in an agreed upon five-point plan was: “To make known abroad, especially in European institutions and society, that the xenophobic and supremacist writings of President Torra in no way represent the values and principles of Catalan society and are contrary to the European values defended by all European Union member states.”

Towards collision

What is the essence of Torra’s program for government?

In the May 12 session he outlined three essential points: “First, our president is Carles Puigdemont. Second, that we will be loyal to the mandate of the referendum of self-determination of October 1: to build an independent state in the form of a republic. Third, our program of government is the economic prosperity and social cohesion of Catalonia.”

This project will be unfolded in three different political arenas: in the “free space of Europe”, where the Council of the Republic will promote the Catalan case internationally; within Catalonia’s institutions (the parliament, local councils and a new body of elected representatives); and via citizen involvement in the process of developing a constitution for the Catalan Republic.

Torra committed to reintroducing into the Catalan parliament the sixteen laws already adopted (covering such areas as climate change and guaranteed minimum income) that have been held up by Spanish government appeals to the Constitutional Court.

He also stated that all public servants who had been sacked during the Spanish government takeover of Catalan administration would be reappointed.

A new round of conflict between the Catalan movement and government and the Spanish state is now inevitable, with clashes certain over the planned constituent process, the creation of the Council of the Republic (an illegal “parallel body” according to Madrid) and the ongoing central state monitoring of Catalan government finances.

These conflicts will make it impossible for the European Commission to continue pretending that Catalonia is an internal Spanish issue, as effectively conceded last week by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker after being exposed to a heated debate on Catalan rights in the Flemish parliament.

In this context, the strains within Spanish unionism will only intensify. For some time now, Citizens has been urging Rajoy to take a tougher line against the Catalan movement, calling on it, for instance, to maintain its suspension of Catalan self-rule despite the election of Torra.

Any number of scenarios is possible, but one stands out as more probable than the rest: that, in the face of repeated blocking of Catalan government initiatives, the Torra administration goes to an early election with a view to making the Spanish state’s creeping crisis terminal.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will appear on]

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