‘Racist’ Catalan president vows to build republic as Spain vetos ministers

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By Dick Nichols May 24, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — On May 14, 199 days after the Catalan pro-independence bloc re-won a majority at the December 21 elections imposed by the Spanish government, the parliament of Catalonia finally voted in a new president. 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 were those of the new right, militantly Spanish-patriotic 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 came from the anti-capitalist pro-independence People’s Unity List (CUP), which in this way guaranteed the relative majority needed for Torra to be invested on the second round. 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 had 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 Catalan PP appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court, but it ruled against provisional suspension of this right while their appeals were being heard. As the court usually suspends the application of laws and regulations when the Spanish government is the appellant, the Rajoy government’s decision not to appeal was attacked by Citizens’ leader Albert Rivera as showing “latitude towards the coup-mongers” because it allowed the pro-independence forces to keep their majority in the Catalan parliament. Secondly, the membership of the small pro-independence party Democrats, descended from the now defunct and once-ruling Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC) and part of the ERC caucus, had voted 88% in favour of backing the investiture of Torra.

A win for ‘the law’?

On the surface, the investiture of Quim Torra could 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—first jailed former Catalan National Congress president Pedro Sánchez and then minister of state and government spokesperson Jordi Turull. However, after the last 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. At the same time, Spain’s main pro-unionist (“constitutionalist”) parties are engaged in a three-way war to prove who is the toughest and most reliable defender of Spanish unity against the “secessionist threat”. Winning so far is Citizens, which began life as a “social democratic” party opposed to having Catalan as the language of instruction in the local school system. Since then, it has developed neo-liberal positions on nearly all other issues and attacks the Rajoy government for being too complacent, conciliationist and slow in its reactions to the Catalan rebellion. The latest Metroscopia poll, published in El País on May 13, gives Citizens 29.1% support, followed by Unidos Podemos and the progressive coalitions forces aligned to it (19.8%), the collapsing PP (19.5%) and the PSOE (19%). If this tendency continues it could well mark the decline and fall of the parties of the 1975-82 transition from the Franco dictatorship, and set up the next Spanish election as a battle between the Spanish chauvinism of Citizens and Unidos Podemos’s plurinational conception of the Spanish state. An important battle lost for the Rajoy government was the April 5 ruling of the Higher Regional court of German state Schleswig-Holstein not to implement the European arrest warrant for “rebellion” issued against Puigdemont by Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena. This decision not only put the legal argumentation of Llarena 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 processed by a compliant Spanish legal system. The tactics of JxCat are aimed at increasing that exposure. By proposing first Sánchez and then Turull as substitute presidential candidates for Puigdemont, the lead pro-independence force compelled judge Llarena was to produce two bizarre rulings. The first prevented Sánchez from being allowed to leave jail to appear before the parliament (despite a clear 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. Editor, journalist and business lawyer Quim Torra, chosen by Puigdemont, then became 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.

Torra: ‘xenophobic, racist and supremacist’?

Who, then, is Quim Torra, Catalonia’s 131st president (and tenth of the modern era)? Inés Arrimades, leader of the opposition and head of Citizens in the Catalan parliament, gave her opinion on May 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, defends populism.” Arrimades quoted from a 2012 piece from 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 (May 12) Xavier Domènech, leader of Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP), 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’? “Torra apologised if his comments had caused offence, but did not answer Domènech’s question. On May 14, Torra repeated his apology and this time added a further comment:
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.
That will not be enough, however. When taken out of context and conveniently edited, Torra’s effusions from before he was elected on the Together for Catalonia (JxCat) ticket provide good ammunition for the parties of the Spanish establishment, intent on denying the Catalan right to self-determination and to keeping the incoming Catalan government on the shortest possible leash. On May 15, after meeting with prime minister Rajoy to agree a joint approach to the ongoing Catalan rebellion (including maintaining control of Catalan government finances), Pedro Sánchez, leader of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), announced this last point in a joint PP-PSOE five-point plan to confront the ongoing Catalan challenge:
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.
By May 18, speaking in Extremadura, Sánchez, described Torra as “the Le Pen of Spanish politics”.
The tweets, the declarations and the reflections of Mr Torra have scandalised European public opinion. It is profoundly disturbed on learning that xenophobia has taken charge of and established control of the independence movement in Catalonia…
What we are seeing in Europe is the rise of reactionary, populist and xenophobic movements. And in Spain this has taken the form of this reactionary movement in Catalonia…
As a result Mr Torra should understand that the left of government [i.e. us in the PSOE, not Unidos Podemos] will stand up to his thinking and his policies. The left defends equality of rights and freedoms, and the PSOE is going to defend the rights and freedoms of Catalan society.
On May 21, Sánchez went even further down this road, calling Torra a “racist”, demanding that the new Spanish law on equality of treatment that the PSOE is involved in elaborating be able to be used to sanction the “xenophobic”, “racist” and “supremacist” actions of the Catalan president. He also flagged that the PSOE could give support to an extended application of the Spanish government’s article 155 takeover of the Catalan government, a not-so-veiled threat to bring Catalan public media and education under central government control. Spanish unionism’s manipulation of anti-racist sentiment against the Torra government has been so blatant that SOSRacism Catalonia felt compelled to issue a statement about it on May 18. This declaration clarified a previous May 15 statement which could have been read as implicitly supporting unionist charges of racism against Torra and which “has led to some confusion and manipulation”. The May 18 statement said:
First of all, we wanted to stop the manipulation of the anti-racist struggle. Using the concept of racism to refer to this type of action banalises racism and trivialises the suffering of its actual victims. We believe that in various circles the concept of racism has been misused in the controversy around the current President in the same way that other circles misuse it to refer to attacks against Catalan citizens. And this misuse of the concept, wherever it comes from, weakens and undermines the anti-racist struggle that we social movements, collectives and associations have been carrying out every day for many years.
The declaration added:
The controversial messages of Mr Quim Torra...we consider are not racist, but we consider that this is a dangerous, irresponsible and unacceptable narrative, which other politicians also use. Talking about “the Spaniards” as well as talking about “the Catalans” as homogenous and counterposed groups represents an excessive simplification of a much more complex, diverse and rich reality.
(See the separate article “The conservative Catalan nationalism of Quim Torra” for further analysis of this issue.)

Ongoing collision

Of course, the problem for the Rajoy government and the “155 bloc” is not Torra’s intellectual positions, rather typical of conservative Catalan nationalism, but his program for government and his refusal—continuing the approach of his predecessor Puigdemont—to accept the legitimacy of any impositions from the Spanish government that flout the December 21 election result. In the May 12 parliamentary session he outlined three essential points:
First, our president is Carles Puigdemont. Second, 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 also committed to reintroducing into the Catalan parliament sixteen laws adopted in the previous legislature—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 fired 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. On May 19, Torra named his cabinet and included in it two existing ministers presently in jail (Jordi Turull and Josep Rull) and two ministers presently in exile (Lluís Puig and Toni Comín), demanding that they be allowed to attend the swearing-in session. The Rajoy government immediately denounced this as a “provocation”, and responded with a declaration that article 155 could be extended and broadened if the new Catalan administration didn’t see sense. The Spanish establishment’s problems with recalcitrant European courts also continues. On May 16, two days after Torra’s investiture, it suffered a further serious setback when the Belgian courts, after consideration of the European warrant for the extradition of Toni Comín and former ministers Meritxell Serret (agriculture) and Lluís Puig (culture), declined to send them back to Spain because that warrant was not backed by an equivalent, underpinning, Spanish warrant. The Belgian prosecutors had informed Llarena of the need for a Spanish arrest warrant on which the European warrant could be based but he declined—out of ignorance, arrogance or laziness—to correct the defective procedure, leading to the exceptional scene in the Brussels court of the Belgian prosecutors demanding that the European arrest warrant be declined. The substantive issues—whether Comín, Serret and Puig had a case to answer for as regards “rebellion” and “misuse of public moneys”—didn’t even get discussed. Next, on May 22, the Higher Regional court of Schleswig-Holstein refused to change its April 5 decision to free Puigdemont provisionally, rejecting a Spanish Supreme Court request that he be held in custody on the grounds of “risk of flight.” All these conflicts will finally make it impossible for the European Commission to continue pretending that Catalonia is an internal Spanish issue, as effectively conceded on by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker after being exposed to a heated debate on Catalan rights in the Flemish parliament on May 9. 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 even deeper. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.