A glimmer of hope in Catalonia amid anger over leader’s removal

Madrid making conciliatory moves three years after independence referendum

Thursday marks exactly three years since the Catalan government held a referendum on independence which brought Spain’s simmering territorial crisis to a chaotic and violent head.

That failed drive for secession was followed by a barrage of legal action against independence leaders which continues to the present day. But despite Spain’s deeply polarised political landscape, in which Catalonia has played a dominant role, there are signs that leading players on both sides could find some common ground in the coming months.

This week, Quim Torra, president of the region since 2018, was removed from his post after the Spanish supreme court confirmed a ruling which fined him and barred him from office for 18 months. The sanction was for disobeying an order by the electoral board to remove symbols supporting jailed independence leaders from his government's building during an election campaign last year.

Torra is the third successive Catalan president to face similar legal action. His predecessor, Carles Puigdemont, who avoided arrest by fleeing to Belgium, replaced Artur Mas, who was barred from office in 2017 after leaving the post.

Demonstrators gathered in Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia on Monday night to protest at the latest court ruling, some flinging pigs’ heads at the police to show their disgust. However, this anger is unlikely to boil over into the kind of unrest that the region saw in October 2019, after jail sentences were handed out to nine leaders of the referendum two years earlier.

That is partly due to coronavirus, which has hit Catalonia hard, but also to the figure of Torra, who has been an erratic leader of the pro-independence government with limited popular appeal.

Issue of prisoners

Pere Aragonès, who was Torra’s vice-president, will now lead the region until an election is held, probably in February. In the meantime, the uncomfortable pro-independence coalition made up of Torra’s Together for Catalonia (JxCat) and Aragonès’s Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which takes a more gradualist approach to the sovereignty issue, will continue.

The election campaign, when it gets under way, is likely to place the repression that pro-independence Catalans believe they suffer from the Spanish state centre stage. In particular, there is the emotive issue of the nine prisoners, whom the Catalan government wants released.

As the ruling against him was confirmed, Torra described the coming election as a plebiscite on independence and a choice between “a Catalan republic of civic commitment or a Spanish monarchy of flags and the army”.

However, in Madrid, the leftist Spanish government of Pedro Sánchez has started taking some steps aimed at defusing the situation.

Penal code review

Firstly, the Socialist leader has reiterated his intention to review the penal code, including the crime of sedition. That could, in theory, lead to some of the sentences of the jailed leaders being substantially reduced. Also, this week his government has started processing requests for pardons for the prisoners, a procedure which could take several months but which many see as a declaration of intent.

“[Sánchez] has understood that the only way to get things back to some sort of normality in Catalonia is through the release of these prisoners,” says Francesc-Marc Álvaro, an author and columnist at La Vanguardia newspaper. He says the Catalan wing of the Socialist Party has been instrumental in persuading the prime minister to pursue this policy.

Such a move on the prisoner issue is likely to help persuade ERC to support the minority Spanish government in the national parliament by, for example, voting in favour of the 2021 budget this autumn.

“This will be good not just for Catalonia but for the stability of the Sánchez administration,” Álvaro adds.

Sánchez is hoping that ERC will win next year’s Catalan election and move away from the more belligerent leadership style of Torra, thus allowing more engagement between the central and regional administrations.

However, more radical players, such as the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) rank-and-file organisation and the Belgium-based Puigdemont, are likely to pressure ERC to take a less conciliatory line. Sánchez, meanwhile, is already facing attacks from the fiercely unionist right in Madrid, who accuse him of pandering to nationalism for his own political survival.

If he is to fend off such criticism, Sánchez will have to demonstrate that his strategy in Catalonia is starting to pay off and that the tensions of the last three years are, finally, beginning to ease.

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