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Spain’s Electoral Commission Sidesteps Courts to Ban Catalan Leaders

Quim Torra is ordered to resign as president. Oriol Junqueras is not allowed to take his seat in the European Parliament.

Quim Torra
Quim Torra enters the parliament of Catalonia to be sworn in as the region’s president, May 14, 2018 (Miguel González de la Fuente)

Spain’s electoral commission is trying to sidestep the courts in order to ban Catalan separatist leaders from office.

The commission ordered Catalan president Quim Torra to step down on Friday, although he is appealing a similar ban from office by the Catalan High Court.

It also barred separatist party leader Oriol Junqueras from taking his seat in the European Parliament, despite the European Court of Justice ruling that he must.

Junqueras

Junqueras, the former Catalan vice president and leader of region’s center-left independence party, the Republican Left, was jailed in 2017 for organizing an independence referendum and declaring Catalonia’s secession from Spain. The Supreme Court found him guilty of misuse of public funds and sedition against the Spanish state in October and sentenced him to thirteen years in prison.

While in pre-trial detention, Junqueras was elected to the European Parliament for Catalonia.

The Spanish government argued he couldn’t take his seat because he had missed a swearing-in ceremony, and it wouldn’t let him out of jail to attend the ceremony.

The European court dismissed that argument in December. It insisted that Junqueras had become a member of the European Parliament — with parliamentary immunity — the moment he was elected.

Yet he remains in prison.

Torra

Torra, who leads the center-right independence party, Together for Catalonia, was sued by unionists in the last election for displaying a banner on the regional government palace in Barcelona that called for Junqueras’ release.

Unionists argued, and the Catalan High Court agreed, that Torra had broken the law, which bars the government from taking sides in an election campaign.

Even though that law was written to prevent support for a party or politician, not a cause.

Torra appealed the decision to the Supreme Court in Madrid. The expectation was that it would uphold the Catalan court’s decision, given that the Supreme Court has consistently sided against Catalan interests, including by banning the 2017 referendum, which justified Junqueras’ detention.

The electoral commission has now sidestepped that process, but it is unclear what the consequences will be. It can ban Torra from the Catalan parliament, but Torra’s lawyers argue the law doesn’t say a president must remain a member of parliament for the duration of his term. They can anyway still appeal the electoral commission’s to the Supreme Court.

If he is forced out, Torra would be the third Catalan president in a row to be removed from office for supporting self-determination. His immediate predecessor, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Belgium to escape arrest at the same time as Junqueras for organizing the 2017 referendum. Puigdemont’s predecessor, Artur Mas, was banned from public office for a decade for organizing an advisory referendum on independence in 2014.

Mistakes

Eight of the electoral commission’s fifteen members are Supreme Court judges, which makes it hard to avoid the impression that conservative judges are trying to accomplish through one body what they couldn’t accomplish through another.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who only one day earlier convinced the Republican Left to abstain from his investiture next week.

Sánchez needs the Catalans, who hold the balance of power in Congress, to at least abstain in order for him to win a second term.

He is still suffering from the mistakes of his conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, who, rather than engage with the then-growing independence movement in Catalonia, refused to even meet with Catalan leaders, let alone hear out their demands.

This radicalized the Catalan nationalist movement. Whereas just one in five Catalans wanted to break away from Spain at the beginning of Rajoy’s term, nearly half did by the time he left office. Many Catalans believe they will never get a fair deal from the rest of Spain. Friday’s decisions by the electoral commission

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