Catalonia update: Months later, still no government and another election looming

Barcelona protest against detention of pro-independence leaders, April 15, 2018.
Monday, April 16, 2018

Catalonia update: Months later, still no government and another election looming

Almost six months have passed since the parliament of Catalonia voted last October, after the Oct. 1 referendum, to constitute “the Catalan Republic, as an independent, sovereign, democratic, social state under the rule of law” and the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, using its powers under Article 155 of the Constitution, removed the Catalan government headed by Carles Puigdemont from office, dissolved the Catalan parliament and called new elections.

And almost four months have passed since those elections took place and the pro-independence parties retained their narrow majority in the parliament. Yet there is still no government and probably won’t be one anytime soon – largely because most of the obvious candidates to lead a new government have been charged with sedition or rebellion and are either in pre-trial detention or outside Spain and can’t, as required, attend an investiture debate in parliament. But because there was an investiture debate on Mar. 22, if no one is elected by May 22 the parliament will automatically be dissolved and a new election called – one that could cause the pro-independence parties to lose their majority. No wonder hundreds of thousands of citizens were in the streets of Barcelona Sunday, amid a sea of Estelades, protesting the detention of, and extradition warrants for, the leaders of the parties advocating independence.

While historians would no doubt trace the source of the current crisis back to the decrees of Phillip V four centuries ago and, more recently, to Madrid’s efforts during the Franco era to eradicate any signs or symbols of Catalan identity and autonomy, the current crisis stems more immediately from the Constitutional Court’s 2010 decision to annul or apply a restrictive interpretation to large parts of a 2006 statute of autonomy, approved by the Catalan and national governments, that gave Catalonia additional powers beyond those allowed under the Constitution to Autonomous Communities such as Catalonia. That decision fueled unusually large turnouts for subsequent celebrations of Catalonia’s National Day (Diada) that in turn led the Catalan parliament to call a non-binding referendum on independence that, despite the Constitutional Court’s ruling that it was illegal, took place in November 2014 and in which more than 80 percent of those voting supported independence.

In the September 2015 election for the Catalan parliament, the three parties supporting independence won a majority of the seats. Together for Yes (Junts pel Sí), a coalition of the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, CDC) and the Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, ERC), won 39.6 percent of the vote and 62 of the 135 seats in the parliament. With the support of the far-left Popular Unity Candidacy (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP), which won 8.2 percent of the vote and 10 seats, Puigdemont was elected president and Together for Yes formed a minority government.

But while a minority government, Together for Yes had, with the support of the CUP, a slim majority in parliament for pro-independence legislation. On Sept. 6, 2017, that majority enacted legislation calling for a binding referendum on Oct. 1 to decide whether Catalonia should become “an independent state in the form of a republic.” Spain’s Constitution doesn’t allow a unilateral secession – or indeed any secession, unilateral or otherwise – of a region; it recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which the country is composed, but it also states that it is based on the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.” The day after the parliament called the referendum, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the legislation. Nevertheless, the Catalan government held the referendum, despite the ruling and the considerable effort by the national government to prevent it by deploying the National Police and Guardia Civil.

43 percent of the electorate voted in the Oct. 1 referendum and 92 percent of those who voted said yes to independence. Three days later, the Catalan government filed a petition that asked the parliament to proclaim Catalonia’s independence on October 9. The Constitutional Court immediately suspended that session. Nevertheless, the next day, Puigdemont signed a document reporting the official results of the referendum and the 72 pro-independence members of the parliament signed a document entitled “Declaration from the representatives of Catalonia” that expressed their intention to establish Catalonia as an independent state.

The next day, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced he was willing to negotiate the extent of Catalonia’s autonomy and possible changes to the Constitution. But such a negotiation would, he said, have to take place within the framework of the law and the government had therefore agreed that the Catalan government must confirm within five days whether it had declared Catalonia to be independent and, if it had, must withdraw the declaration within three days. If the declaration was not withdrawn, Madrid would, he said, apply Article 155 of the Constitution. Article 155 empowers the national government, following approval by an absolute majority of the Senate, to take whatever measures are necessary in order to compel an Autonomous Community such as Catalonia to meet its obligations under the Constitution or other laws and protect the general interests of Spain.

Puigdemont wrote to Rajoy, noting that he had proposed that the Catalan government suspend the effect of the declaration of independence so that it might undertake a dialogue with Madrid and reiterating his appeal for dialogue. But the declaration was not withdrawn and on Oct. 27, after a heated debate and the walk-out of more than 50 members, 70 members voted to constitute “the Catalan Republic, as an independent, sovereign, democratic, social state under the rule of law.” Two abstained and 10 said No.

Rajoy presides over a minority government that includes his center-right Popular Party (Partido Popular, PP) and the liberal Citizens (Ciudadanos, C’s), headed by Albert Rivera, a Catalan but a fierce opponent of secession. In the June 2016 national election, the PP obtained 33 percent of the vote and 137 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies and the C’s obtained 13 percent of the vote and 32 seats. But although it has less than a majority in the lower house, the government has a secure majority in the Senate. One hour after the Catalan parliament voted to constitute Catalonia as an independent state, the Senate voted 214 to 47 to authorize the government to take whatever measures were necessary with respect to Catalonia. The next day the Spanish government removed Puigdemont and the Catalan government from office, dissolved the Catalan parliament and called new elections on Dec. 21, 2017.

On Oct. 30, José Manuel Maza, the Spanish Attorney General, announced he had filed charges with the National Court and Supreme Court against Puigdemont and a dozen other Catalan political leaders for rebellion, sedition and/or misuse of public funds. On the same day, Puigdemont and four former ministers in the Catalan government fled to Brussels. Several days later, the eight who remained in Spain were jailed and European arrest warrants were issued for Puigdemont and the others in Brussels.

The Spanish government hoped the December election would produce an electoral backlash against the pro-independence parties by attracting to the polls a “silent majority” of voters opposed to independence who, either because they felt intimidated or threatened by the supporters of independence or because they believed it was illegal, had not voted in the referendum. It was a plausible expectation given the low turnout in the referendum. But it turned out to be wrong; despite a much higher turnout – 79 percent, the highest in any Catalan election – the distribution of support between the pro- and anti-independence blocs remained virtually unchanged. The three pro-independence parties won 47.6 percent of the vote compared with 47.8 percent in 2015. Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya), consisting of the Catalan European Democratic Party (Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català, PDeCAT), the reconstituted CDC, and some independents and led by Puigdemont from Brussels, won 21.7 percent of the vote and 34 seats, a gain of three. The Republican Left, led by Marta Rovira, the party’s secretary-general, in place of Oriol Junqueras, its jailed leader, won 21.4 percent of the vote and 32 seats, a gain of six. However, the CUP won only 4.5 percent of the vote, little more than half of its 2015 vote, and lost six of its ten seats. And five seats that had been won in 2015 by independents campaigning under the Together for Yes (Junts pel Sí) banner were lost. Taken together, the pro-independence forces retained their narrow majority – 70 of the 135 seats, two less than in the outgoing parliament.

Several days after the election, Rajoy announced he would convene the Catalan parliament on Jan. 17, 2018. Roger Torrent, a member of the Republican Left, was elected speaker and announced the parliament would vote on Jan. 30 for a new president of the government. Puigdemont, still in Brussels, was the sole candidate. In order to be elected, a candidate must be present for the investiture debate and vote. But fearful of being arrested if he returned to Catalonia, Puigdemont proposed, instead, that he take part in the debate via video conferencing or by having a member read his speech. The Constitutional Court rejected the proposal and said his election would be valid only if he was present in parliament for the debate with prior judicial authorization. On Mar. 1, Puigdemont provisionally renounced his candidacy and said his party would propose Jordi Sànchez, the former head of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), to lead a new government, despite the fact that Sànchez, who had been charged with sedition in October, was in pre-trial detention in a Madrid prison.

The investiture debate and vote on Sànchez was scheduled for Mar. 5. But Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena rejected his request that he be allowed to attend the debate. On Mar. 21, Sànchez withdrew his candidacy and another session of parliament was arranged, hastily, for an investiture debate the next day involving a new candidate – Jordi Turull, Puigdemont’s former chief of staff. One reason for the haste was the fact that Turull, along with several other pro-independence figures, had been summoned to a hearing before Judge Llarena on Mar. 23 to face charges of rebellion, which presumably would result in his pre-trial detention. After meeting all day with the other pro-independence parties, the CUP, which continued to support Puigdemont and unilateral secession, announced it would no longer work in coalition with the other pro-independence parties and would abstain in the vote on Turull. As a result, the vote for Turull was 64 in favor, 65 against and 4 abstentions.

A second vote was scheduled for Mar. 24. But as anticipated, on Mar. 23, Judge Llarena charged Turull and a dozen other pro- independence political figures, including Puigdemont and Sànchez, with rebellion, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years. Several of those charged, such as Sànchez and Junqueras, the leader of the Left Republicans and former vice president, were already in custody. Several others – most notably, Puigdemont and Marta Rovira, who had fled that morning to Switzerland – were not in Spain. (The judge issued new European arrest warrants for Puigdemont, Rovira and the others who had left Spain, and several days later Puigdemont was arrested in Germany while returning to Brussels by car from a trip to Finland.) Turull and four others were detained on the grounds they posed a flight risk. As a result, the planned continuation of the investiture debate on Turull’s candidacy was cancelled.

On April 7, Torrent, the speaker of the Catalan parliament, said the independence parties would put forward Jordi Sànchez again as a candidate and an investiture debate and vote was scheduled for last Friday, April 13. Sanchez appealed again to be released to attend the debate but, to no one’s surprise, Judge Llarena again rejected his request and the debate was cancelled.

It’s not clear who the pro-independence parties will propose next to lead a new government. There are, of course, many members who have not been charged and detained and remain in Spain. But whether one of them will be elected, either by an absolute majority on a first vote or a simple majority on a second vote, before May 22 remains to be seen. If a candidate is not elected by that date, the parliament will be dissolved and new elections held within 60 days – elections that could result in losses for some if not all of the pro-independence parties. On the other hand, if a candidate is elected before that date, the new government will face a formidable challenge in maintaining its parliamentary majority while pursuing in its relations with the national government some greater degree of autonomy that nevertheless falls well short of the independence Madrid will not allow.

A survey conducted in January for the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió in Barcelona points toward a possible pathway for the next Catalan government, whether it is formed before May 22 or after the next election. More than 60 percent of the respondents in thee CEO survey said Catalonia has an insufficient degree of autonomy. When asked whether Catalonia should be an independent state, a state in a federal Spain, remain an Autonomous Community, or be simply a region, only 32.9 percent, compared with 40.2 percent in an October survey, said it should be an independent state. 19.4 percent, compared with 21.9 percent in October, said it should be an independent state in a federal Spain; 36.3 percent, compared with 27.4 percent in October, said it should remain as an Autonomous Community; and 6.6 percent, compared with 4.6 percent in October, said it should be simply a region. When asked more concretely whether Catalonia should be an independent state, only 40.8 percent said yes, compared with 48.7 percent in October, while 53.9 percent said no, compared with 43.6 percent in October. And when asked what the government to be formed after the December election should do, only 19 percent said it should continue on the path to a unilateral declaration of independence, compared with 36 percent who said it should seek a bilateral accord with the central government, 21 percent who said it should participate in a commission to reform the Constitution and the financial system, and 12 percent who said it should continue in its current form as an Autonomous Community. Three-quarters of those who supported the far-left CUP in the December election wanted the next government to continue on the path to a unilateral declaration of independence. But nearly half of those who supported Together for Catalonia or the Left Republicans in December – considerably more than the number who wanted the next government to continue on the path to independence – wanted the next government to seek, instead, a bilateral accord with the central government.

Perhaps it is time for Together for Catalonia and the Left Republicans to listen to their supporters and, indeed, all of the voters in Catalonia – even if it means finding a new ally in the parliament.

Written by David R. Cameron, a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.