Catalan premier challenges regional parliament by refusing to give up seat

Quim Torra in the Catalan parliament.
Quim Torra in the Catalan parliament.ALBERT GARCIA

The Catalan premier Quim Torra on Monday refused to give up his seat in the regional parliament, ignoring decisions by the Supreme Court and the Central Electoral Board stripping him of his credentials after he was found guilty of disobeying electoral rules.

The separatist leader called on the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent, to also ignore these orders, but the latter refused and warned Torra that if he took part in the day’s voting, his vote would not be counted.

Losing his seat in parliament does not automatically mean Torra could not continue to serve as the Catalan premier

In the end, Torra got all the representatives from his own party, Together for Catalonia (JxCAT), to abstain from voting on four motions that were on Monday’s agenda. The move evidenced the division between JxCAT and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), the other main separatist force in the regional chamber, and took the region one step closer to early elections.

Speaker Torrent, of ERC, had said that the parliament urgently needed to vote on important matters such as the budget or financial aid to repair the damage caused by Storm Gloria. But Torra argued that obeying the orders against him would be “to dismantle the Catalan institutions.”

Torra demanded that he not be stripped of his seat in the regional parliament, after the speaker’s committee in the chamber backed a decision from the Barcelona Electoral Board to substitute him as a lawmaker. The general secretary of the Catalan parliament, Xavier Muro, had announced earlier on Monday that he had ordered the start of procedures to name another deputy from JxCAT party to take Torra’s place.

Spain’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Torra should lose his status as a deputy until it issues a final ruling on the politician’s appeal against his 18-month ban from public office. In December, the Catalan Regional High Court found Torra guilty of disobedience for refusing to remove banners in support of jailed pro-independence leaders from public buildings during an election campaign, something that violated regulations on political neutrality.

Catalan Socialist Party leader Miquel Iceta reiterated his call for early regional elections

The top court did not rule on whether stripping Torra, a hard-line separatist, of his position as a lawmaker in the regional parliament would mean the pro-independence leader would have to step down as premier of Catalonia. This decision, in principle, must be made by the Catalan parliament, according to its own rules.

For weeks now, the political future of Quim Torra has been in the hands of the Supreme Court. The criminal bench of the court must rule on Torra’s appeal against the 18-month ban from public office for disobedience. And the administrative bench must review the decision of the National Electoral Board (JEC) to strip Torra of his position as deputy in the Catalan parliament because of this ban from public office.

At the start of a parliamentary session on Monday afternoon, Torra asked to take the floor and called on the speaker of the chamber, Roger Torrent, to “guarantee” his rights as a deputy “as he has always done.” Not doing so, the hardline Catalan separatist argued, would be to “put the continuity of the institutions at risk.” When he finished speaking, Torra was applauded by just a smattering of deputies in the chamber. The deputy premier, Pere Aragonès of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), remained in his seat and did not clap.

When it was the turn of the opposition to take the floor, the speaker suspended the session for several minutes after deputies from center-right group Ciudadanos, which opposes independence for Catalonia, began to chant “Criminal, criminal” at Torra.

Minutes later, the head of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), Miquel Iceta, took the floor, arguing that the division among the pro-independence forces in the parliament “is stopping you from governing.” Iceta reiterated his demand for regional elections to be called.

Torra responded by claiming that the “Spanish state wanted to usurp” his role as deputy, and called on Torrent to respect the will of the voters who had put him in office. Earlier, the speaker told the parliament that he disagreed with the decision by the JEC, but that any votes passed in the chamber in which Torra participated would be declared null and void. Jéssica Albiach, a deputy from Catalunya en Comú Podem, called on Torra to “stop this disobedience, which doesn’t lead anywhere.”

The speaker’s committee has backed the removal of Torra’s seat, but believes that he can continue to serve as premier under the governing rules of the chamber. In the wake of the decision, Together for Catalunya was seeking to hold a vote on whether or not the general secretary of the parliament has the powers to rule on the removal of Torra from his seat .

Pro-independence groups in the parliament – who are governing in coalition – held meetings over the weekend in a bid to reach a unified response to the decision made by the JEC, but were unable to do so. The president of the ERC group, Sergi Sabrià, said after the speaker’s committee’s decision emerged: “We have to protect the role of premier, we will do all that we can so that he continues to be a deputy, but at the same time we have to guarantee the validity of votes as important as the budget and the sovereignty of parliament.”

The head of Ciudadanos in Catalonia, Lorena Roldán, welcomed the decision by the speaker’s committee, and warned that if Torra “entrenched” himself in the role, her party would do everything within its reach to have him removed. Both Ciudadanos and the conservative Popular Party (PP) no longer consider Torra to be the regional premier of Catalonia.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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