Monday

21st May 2018

New leader's election leaves Catalan crisis unresolved

  • 'The Catalan republic is [about] equality, liberty and fraternity', Torra said (Photo: parlament.cat)

Catalonia entered a new phase of uncertainty after the region's parliament elected a radical separatist as leader of the government on Monday (14 May).

Quim Torra, a former leader of the Omnium Cultural activist group, got 66 votes against 65, with the radical left CUP party abstaining.

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"Long live free Catalonia," he declared after his election.



In the debate ahead of the vote, Torra said he was still committed to the result of last year's independence referendum - but promised to reach out to anti-independence citizens in Catalonia.

"With a republic, everyone will win rights, nobody will lose rights: these are for everyone, no matter which way they vote. The Catalan republic is [about] equality, liberty and fraternity," he said.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy reacted by saying that he would "bet on understanding and agreement in looking at the future."

But he also warned that he would "make sure that the law, the Spanish constitution and the rest of the legal system, are obeyed."

Torra's election puts an end to more than seven months of political crisis, since the 1 October referendum was followed by a declaration of independence, the suspension of Catalonia's autonomy and elections that failed to give a clear majority.

When Torra's government is in place, Rajoy will be required to lift the application of Article 155 of the constitution, the original basis for the suspension of the region's autonomy.

But what the two leaders will do next remains unclear.

"We'll have another crisis," said Camino Mortera-Martinez, from the Brussels-based Centre for European Reform think tank.

She noted that both Torra and Rajoy had the choice between two bad options.

The new Catalan leader, who was chosen by Carles Puigdemont, the Berlin-exiled leader who organised the referendum last year, has promised to stay at his post only until Puigdemont is cleared of rebellion and embezzlement charges and can return to Barcelona.

"Will he follow Puigdemont's orders or will he go for his own political goals?" Mortera-Martinez asked.

She pointed out that Torra was "a kind of more radical pro-independence [figure] than Puigdemont", and his separatist views were based on culture and language, while Puigdemont focused more on social issues.

Weaker Rajoy

If Torra waits for a hypothetical return of Puigdemont, "Catalonia will be heading for a longer time of doing nothing and it will not be good for the economy", Mortera-Martinez said.

But if Torra starts taking political measures, "we have the risk an open conflict [with Madrid] and the risk of taking it to the streets," she said.

Rajoy, for his part, "is weaker than in October," the political scientist noted.

Rajoy's tough stand on Catalonia failed to weaken separatists in the December elections, or to deter them from electing a hardliner as the region's new leader.

If Rajoy, who will meet the opposition leaders on Tuesday and Wednesday, does nothing, "he takes the risk of a future ... crisis," Mortera-Martinez said.



She wondered however how the prime minister would be able to explain a potential re-activation of Article 155.

"What kind of message would he be giving to the Catalans?" she asked, adding that in Madrid, he is under growing criticism from the Ciudadanos party for not being strong enough.

'Discriminatory populism'

The possibility for dialogue could also be hindered by Torra's controversial previous comments on Spain.

In messages on Twitter that he erased last week, he said among other that "Spaniards only know how to plunder" and that those who don't defend the Catalan language and culture were "scavengers, vipers and hyenas."

"I'm sorry. This won't happen again," he said on Monday, while Ines Arrimadas, the leader of the Catalan opposition, accused him of "xenophobia and discriminatory populism".

In Brussels, where the EU kept its distance throughout the political crisis, the European Commission declined to comment on Torra's election.

Asked about Torra's past comments on Spain, the commission spokesman said he would not "dignify them with a comment".

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