Strategic tensions in Catalan government erupt as early election called

Catalan independence flags displayed on balustrades during the 2017 independence referendum.

“This government has run its political course.” With this abrupt phrase, Catalan Premier Quim Torra announced on January 29 that the pro-independence alliance between his party, Together for Catalonia (JxCat), and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) had fallen apart.

“No government can function without unity, without a common and shared strategy on basic questions and without loyalty among its members,” he remarked, adding that the country would have early elections, but only after parliament adopted the 2020 budget.

He declared: “Elections are needed to renew the democratic mandate of a country that desires democracy, justice and freedom. We have to advance towards the goal of fulfilling the mandate of [the referendum of] the First of October — independence — by rediscovering our lost unity.”

Torra’s termination of the JxCat–ERC government came in response to the January 27 decision by Roger Torrent, ERC speaker of the Catalan parliament, to suspend him as an MP.

Acting on parliamentary legal counsel advice, Torrent and the majority of the speakership panel agreed to abide by a ruling of the Spanish Central Electoral Board (JEC) withdrawing Torra’s status as a parliamentarian.

For the JEC, Torra’s crime was that, during the previous Spanish general election campaign, he had deliberately flouted a JEC order by delaying the removal of a banner supporting the Catalan political prisoners and exiles from the central government building in Barcelona.

The ERC initially rejected Torra’s sacking as an MP. However, once the Spanish Supreme Court ruled on January 23 that the JEC had acted lawfully, the ERC faced the prospect of Torrent too being charged, if the pro-independence majority persisted with its rebellion.

The ERC then accepted that Torra should lose his seat, even though this raised the prospect of him also being removed as premier, most probably via legal action initiated by the right-wing unionist forces, the People’s Party (PP) and Citizens.

Black day in parliament

The January 27 session of the Catalan parliament put the division in the pro-independence camp on cruel display.

It began with Torrent announcing the speakership panel’s decision not to count Torra’s vote. “That would mean paralysing the parliament, because it would endanger legal certainty and the validity and effectiveness of all the decisions adopted by the chamber,” he explained.

Torra replied by calling for reversal of Torrent’s decision because “the door is being opened to wrecking the institutions.

“A politicised body without competency sacks and installs MPs to suit itself,” he said.

The JxCat MPs gave Torra a standing ovation after he spoke: the ERC MPs stayed glued to their seats.

The day ended with the JxCat caucus absenting itself from the initial presentation of the government’s budget. This had been negotiated with Catalonia Together (CeC), the left force that formally recognises a Catalan right to self-determination.

Torrent’s decision revived memories of January, 2018, when the speakership panel majority also chose to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that prohibited exiled JxCat leader Carles Puigdemont from being invested as premier via videolink from exile in Belgium.

Since then, the tension between the two main Catalan independence parties has bubbled away, due to their struggle for hegemony within the pro-independence camp and their dispute over how to pursue the struggle for self-determination.

For the ERC, the main lesson of the failure to implement the result of the October 2017 referendum is the need to expand support for the independence cause, especially among working-class communities originating outside Catalonia. Torrent said in a January 31 radio interview: “A pro-independence majority ready for a strategy of disobedience does not exist.”

For the leading circles of JxCat, guided by former premier Puigdemont, the key issue is providing united leadership for a strategy involving mass civil disobedience. October 2017 and ongoing Spanish state repression have confirmed the need for such an approach.

Asked about Torrent’s comment, JxCat MP Elsa Artadi told the February 1 Ara: “What Catalan society is not ready for is that the parliament betrays what it has already voted for.

“We’re not asking society to do anything, just that we as MPs guarantee that what the citizens have voted for takes precedence over JEC interference.”

PP empire strikes back

The split between the two main Catalan pro-independence parties is a win for the Spanish judicial and institutional establishments under the control of the PP.

Now in opposition to the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (UP) coalition government, the PP has used its mates in the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, the JEC and the Court of Public Accounts to successfully exploit ERC-JxCat tensions.

Over the past few months these bodies have unleashed intense bombardments against Catalan positions. They began with a Constitutional Court ban on the Catalan parliament discussing the right to self-determination or criticising the Spanish monarchy, followed by charges by the Spanish Prosecutor-General’s Office against Torrent for allowing that debate.

Since then, the Supreme Court has refused to release former ERC deputy premier Oriol Junqueras to sit in the European Parliament as an MEP despite a European Union High Court ruling that he had enjoyed parliamentary immunity since election last May.

The JEC has denied former education minister Clara Ponsati recognition as an MEP, despite her accreditation by the European Parliament following British MEP departures as a result of Brexit.

On January 27, the Court of Public Accounts made its contribution by requiring Puigdemont and 27 other Catalan leaders and public servants to lodge €4 million with it as compensation for funding the “illegal” October 1 referendum with public monies.

If they do not find these millions within a fortnight, their property will be seized.

On January 31, the Spanish prosecutor-general’s Barcelona office opposed granting 72 hours prison leave to Omnium Cultural president Jordi Cuixart, because “he has shown no signs of remorse” for his involvement in the referendum.

On February 3, the Supreme Court’s sub-branch in Catalonia launched a second round of proceedings against Torra for the banner in support of the prisoners and exiles. On that day Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena demanded that Britain extradite Ponsati from Scotland (where European Parliament immunity no longer applies) and that the European Parliament lift her immunity.

In the background, the trial in the National High Court of former Catalan police chief Josep Lluís Trapero and three associates on charges of “rebellion” rolls on. For the prosecution, Trapero’s “rebellion” consisted in not instructing the Catalan police to join the Civil Guard and the Spanish National Police in bashing voters during the “illegal” referendum.

PSOE discomfort

The reason for such rabid behaviour is that the PP is in a mortal struggle with the ultra-right Vox for the Spanish-patriotic vote and must show that it can meet the Catalan threat to Spanish state unity better than its rival.

The PP’s positions in the “deep state” are ideal for entangling Catalan institutions and political figures in exhausting litigation leading to  jail, disqualification from public office and financial ruin.

These institutions are also helpful for the PP as opposition in congress. If the Pedro Sánchez administration appears to support Catalan demands, it will be accused of complicity with the “coup-plotters”, violating the division of powers, and targeted with “lawfare”.

The PP hopes that PSOE faint-heartedness at that prospect will incline Sánchez to concede as little as possible at the “table of dialogue” with the Catalan government he was forced to agree to in exchange for ERC support for his investiture.

A sign of the PSOE’s lack of enthusiasm for this dialogue came after Torra announced the end of his government. The prime minister’s office responded with an ill-disguised sigh of relief at being spared a debate on self-determination and the release of the Catalan political prisoners.

Only when Gabriel Rufián, ERC leader in the congress, reminded Sánchez of the impact that dropping these uncomfortable agenda points would have in Catalonia did Sánchez make clear that he was still prepared to tackle them in a forthcoming meeting with the Catalan premier.

The only move that can stall the PP’s judicial onslaught — and also fulfil Sánchez’s pledge to shift the Spain-Catalonia conflict out of the courts — is for his government to propose that the Spanish congress declare an amnesty for all political prisoners and exiles.

However, given the uproar such a move would produce across the whole Spanish establishment — and within the PSOE — it is very hard to imagine Sánchez making it.

Torra’s decision to go to an early election produced dismay in the Catalan independence movement. It also spurred wishful thinking in CeC and the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC, the PSOE’s Catalan franchise) that the ERC might be persuaded to drop its “nationalist” alliance with JxCat in favour of a “social” alliance with themselves.

However, the coming election can also have the benefit of broadening participation in the discussion about strategy that the independence movement sorely needs.

This is not about “broadening support” versus “disobedience”, but about how to practically advance towards both goals. Minority disobedience risks isolation: endlessly dodging conflict risks destruction of the movement’s morale.

The first opinion polls after Torra’s decision are showing an increased majority for pro-independence parties and those supporting the Spanish government, together with a lower vote for the right, marked internally by the collapse of Citizens in favour of Vox and the PP.

Hopefully the prospect of the independence movement finally winning a majority of votes (and not just seats) in a Catalan election helps concentrate the minds of all its components on developing the united strategy that millions of sovereignty supporters are demanding.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.  For updates on the Catalan struggle, follow Foreign Friends of Catalonia on Twitter, or visit the website. You can stay up to date and read past articles in GL’s coverage of Catalonia here.]