BARCELONA — Quim Torra faces an abrupt end to his tenure as regional president of Catalonia as Spain’s Supreme Court ponders whether to remove him for breaching electoral law — just as Madrid is floating the renewal of talks with the separatists.
Last year, the Catalan Regional High Court found Torra guilty of disobedience for taking three days to remove banners and yellow ribbons draped on public buildings in support of jailed pro-independence leaders during an election campaign in 2019. It banned him from public office for 18 months and fined him €30,000 plus the legal costs of the trial.
The country’s Supreme Court is weighing whether to ratify that verdict, with a ruling due in the coming weeks. If it does, Torra would be removed from office with immediate effect, even if he appeals to the Constitutional Court and, ultimately, the Court of Justice of the EU. The appeals process could last a further six months.
During a hearing on Thursday, Torra’s lawyer Gonzalo Boye said the Catalan president’s decision not to remove the symbols immediately was “political” and should be protected by the right to freedom of expression. The public prosecutor argued that he had breached election campaign neutrality rules — as Torra admitted at his trial last November.
Torra, a hardline supporter of Catalan independence, became president after Carles Puigdemont was ousted in May 2018 by the Spanish government for holding an illegal 2017 referendum on independence and unilaterally declaring independence.
“I have come to Madrid to reiterate that our cause will continue to the end: a free and fair republic for all Catalans” — Quim Torra, Catalan regional president
Speaking after the hearing, Torra accused the Spanish state of trying to “bring down” another Catalan president with “no right or justification to do so.” This could hinder the Catalan government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic and respond to the resulting economic crisis, he added.
“I have come to Madrid to reiterate that our cause will continue to the end: a free and fair republic for all Catalans,” Torra said.
Talks in the air
A verdict against Torra would undermine Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s plans to start negotiations with Catalan leaders to find a way out of the crisis. His team want roundtable discussions to begin as soon as possible, but they are waiting for two parties in the ruling Catalan coalition — Torra’s Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) — to agree on a date.
Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said Thursday that Torra wouldn’t be able to take part if he is removed from office, but that the talks should go ahead anyway.
Meritxell Serret, the Catalan government’s representative to the EU, said a ruling against Torra “won’t help to find a political solution to the crisis.” Spain should issue an amnesty for the jailed Catalan leaders involved in the 2017 independence bid, she added.
The separatist parties are divided on what to do if Torra is ousted. The Catalan president has ruled out a snap election and threatened to prevent the regional parliament from appointing his successor. By law, if parliament fails to elect a replacement, that would automatically trigger a regional election, likely to take place in early 2021.
Pere Aragonès, Catalonia’s deputy president and leader of the ERC, would like a regional election as soon as possible, but called for unity among pro-independence parties, saying “we could not forgive ourselves, and neither could citizens” if the forces did not unite.
Jacint Jordana, a political scientist at the Pompeu Fabra University of Barcelona, said talks with Madrid will likely be postponed until a new Catalan government emerges.
“Nobody [from the Catalan side] will be in a position to make decisions as part of that roundtable and everything will be said with an eye on the elections, so it is likely that the negotiations will be frozen until a new government is elected in Catalonia,” he said.
On Thursday, the Catalan regional parliament added fuel to the fire by voting down a motion put forward by the center-right party Ciudadanos asking the chamber to abide by the Supreme Court’s injunction if it does ratify the lower court’s verdict against Torra.
Ciudadanos’ Carlos Carrizosa warned the speaker of the Catalan parliament Roger Torrent he could face legal action if he tries to block the process to elect a replacement for Torra. “The law has not always been followed in the past,” Carrizosa said.
Lluís Orriols, a political scientist at the Carlos III University in Madrid, expects JxCat to create “convulsion” in the coming months around Puigdemont, whose followers regard him as the rightful president of Catalonia and who still pulls some strings from exile in Waterloo, Belgium. That, in turn, will force the ERC to take a hard line as well.
“The pro-independence movement will argue Torra has been removed because Spain doesn’t respect freedom of expression,” said Orriols. “That’s a very powerful argument, and will clash with that of the constitutionalists, who’ll say Torra broke the rules of the game and disobeyed the referee.”