Last December 21, Catalonia’s three parliamentary forces supporting independence — Together for Catalonia (JxCat), the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) — won a 70-65 seat majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.
Six months of drawn-out negotiations over forming a pro-independence government then followed.
During this period, Spanish Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena banned JxCat and ERC MPs who were in preventive detention or exile over alleged offences in relation to Catalonia’s referendum last October from standing for Catalan president or as ministers in any new Catalan government.
Llarena was backed up by the Spanish Constitutional Court, acting on the request of Spain’s since-ousted People’s Party (PP) government.
On March 23, Llarena indicted 25 Catalan political and social movement leaders on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public moneys.
On May 29, after the Spanish state institutions had successfully blocked seven presidential and ministerial nominations, JxCat and the ERC finally managed to form a coalition government under President Quim Torra.
It seemed that a stable Catalan administration had been formed, albeit under constant pressure from the Spanish state. However, just four months later, in the October 9 session of the Catalan parliament, the Torra government became a minority.
The stability of the Catalan government has not been affected, but the always tense relations between JxCat and the ERC have reached a new low.
The root cause of the dispute is Llarena’s July 9 decision to temporarily suspend six elected JxCat and ERC representatives from Catalan parliament: former president Carles Puigdemont, former vice-president Oriol Junqueras, former ministers Jordi Turull, Josep Rull and Raül Romeva and former president of the Catalan National Assembly, Jordi Sànchez.
Llarena acted under a Spanish law that dictates automatic suspension from public office until the case of any detainee who “belongs or is related to armed gangs or individual terrorists or rebels” is decided.
The law was originally designed to keep supporters of the Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) armed group from taking up parliamentary positions.
On July 30, the Supreme Court full bench upheld Llarena’s suspension of the MPs. It ruled that “rebellion” could take place in the absence of weapons or explosives, in contradiction to a 1987 Constitutional Court ruling that their use was needed to constitute rebellion.
To dodge the charge that he was trying to destroy the Catalan parliamentary majority, Llarena ruled the suspended MPs could delegate their vote to a substitute. He left the implementation of his decision not to the individual MPs, but to the Catalan parliament’s speakership board on which JxCat and the ERC combined have a four-to-three majority.
Llarena’s ruling caused immediate discord between the two main pro-independence goupings. JxCat — the broad-based force created by Puigdemont for the December 21 election — argued that parliament had to assert its sovereignty against outside interference.
This was especially crucial, it said, since German and Belgian courts had declined to extradite Puigdemont and other suspects on the basis of these “crimes”.
For the ERC, in contrast, it was critical to avoid a premature conflict with Spanish state powers. Rejecting Llarena’s ruling, it argued, would lead to condemnation by the Spanish legal system and prosecution of those associated with the decision — starting with the ERC parliamentary speaker Roger Torrent.
Agreement and disagreement
After three months of tension, including suspension of parliamentary sessions, the ERC and JxCat announced an agreement on September 25. This would meet three goals without accepting the suspensions ordered by Llarena: no MP would have to give up their seat; the pro-independence majority would not change; and votes taken in parliament would be immune to legal challenge.
A resolution based on this agreement was passed by the Catalan parliament on October 2. It was supported by JxCat, ERC and Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP), a left coalition that supports a Catalan right to decide but not necessarily independence.
The third pro-independence force, the CUP, voted against on the grounds that the resolution effectively complied with Llarena’s dictates. Meanwhile, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), sister organisation of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) that governs in the Spanish state, did not vote.
The two right-wing unionist parties, Citizens and the PP, walked out of the chamber in protest. Citizens indicated it would bring a case against the resolution to the Constitutional Court.
Upon its adoption, the two ERC MPs affected, Junqueras and Romeva, passed on their vote to substitute MPs. By contrast, the four JxCat MPs affected — Puigdemont, Sànchez, Turull and Rull —indicated that the head of the JxCat parliamentary fraction, Albert Batet, would continue to vote on their behalf.
The PSC then called on Torrent to seek the opinion of the parliament’s legal counsel as to the constitutional status of the October 2 resolution and the different ways it had been implemented by the ERC and JxCat.
On October 8, the counsel delivered its opinion that the voting arrangement maintained by the four affected JxCat MPs did not “make use of the facility foreseen in the Resolution of designating another member of their group to exercise the parliamentary rights of the MPs”.
The potential result was that, “if a parliamentarian is not explicitly substituted by another, that parliamentarian cannot exercise their right to vote by delegation [and] if they were to do so, that vote could not be counted as valid”.
Decisions resulting from such invalid votes would violate the rights of other MPs. It would open the Catalan parliament to intervention by the Constitutional Court and the Spanish state. That could lead in turn to possible indictment of speaker Torrent.
On October 9, the speakership panel voted to accept the legal counsel’s opinion. The ERC and PSC voted in favour, JxCat against and Citizens abstained.
JxCat then faced three options: accept substitution of its four affected MPs; continue to vote by delegation and have the votes rejected by Torrent; or have the four MPs not vote.
The group adopted the last option, cutting the size of the ERC-JxCat bloc from 65 to 61. This opened the door to the pro-independence camp (61 ERC-JxCat bloc plus four CUP MPs) becoming a minority of 65 in the 135-seat body.
The result was immediately seen in that afternoon’s parliamentary session. The total vote by pro-independence forces could only equal the rest of the parliamentary groups combined — if these voted together, a motion would face a tied vote and be lost.
This happened with two resolutions covering Catalonia’s right to self-determination, and the censuring of Spanish King Philip for his notorious speech last year justifying the police violence on the day of Catalonia’s independence vote.
More important than such immediate losses is the prospect of an unstable government less able to give form to a Catalan Republic based on social reforms that could make it an attractive alternative to the Kingdom of Spain.
Nonetheless, substituting its jailed and exiled MPs was a line in the sand for JxCat that dignity demanded it not cross.
These MPs justified the choice in an October 9 letter: “[O]ur decision to maintain voting by delegation to the spokesperson of the JxCat parliamentary group is perfectly in line with the law. We consider that delegation can only be rejected on the basis of reasoning unconstrained by possible coercion by an organ outside the legislative power...
“We shall work for the violation of the right to political representation and the alteration of the majorities arising from December 21 to be taken into consideration by international organisations and courts.
“Once again, we shall go to Europe and the world to find the justice that the Spanish state denies us and denies itself.”
An uncharitable interpretation of JxCat’s political motives is that when the May 2019 municipal and European elections arrive, its apparently principled refusal to accept substitution will play better within the independence camp than ERC pragmatism.
For the ERC, the priority remains maintaining the independence bloc’s parliamentary majority. According to fraction head Sergi Sabrià, “We don’t need rhetoric, we need effective majorities” and “a joint, long-term strategy”.
Sabrià points to the importance of adopting the government’s budget with its raft of social measures. JxCat MPs state in reply that, given CUP dismissal of the budget as just another Spanish regional government product, negotiations with CatECP were already needed: the decline to 61 votes did not change anything of substance.
In Madrid, PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez jumped to congratulate his government for having split the radicals from the reasonable people in Catalonia.
PP leader Pablo Casado, meanwhile, demanded Citizens immediately present a motion of no-confidence in the Catalan parliament as a way of putting the PSC (and therefore the PSOE) on the spot. The aim is to pressure Sánchez and his people to show whether they are truly serious about weeding out the independence menace.
Such reactions only confirm the obvious: one year on from the October 1 referendum and after eight years of million-plus demonstrations, Catalonia’s rebellion remains the central issue in Spanish politics.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed analysis of the struggle over strategy in the Catalan independence movement will soon appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]