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Tension, broken talks, trial, rising hegemony – Catalan political year at a glance

Four-month independence process and three elections shaped the 2018-2019 season

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31 July 2019 12:15 PM

by

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

“I would do it again.” This is arguably one of the most powerful sentences from Catalonia’s 2018-2019 political year, for who said it, where and why – but the season now coming to an end has left us much more, including some ups and downs of demonstrations and tension on the streets, failed talks between governments, a rising hegemony after three elections, and a trial. A very high-stakes trial. 

Independence trial and imprisonments

More than 400 witnesses and experts, and several hours of footage from the 2017 independence bid were the protagonists of a four-month trial of 12 of the politicians and activists behind the 2017 referendum.

Spanning from February to June, some of the highlights of its 52 sessions included the opening and closing statements of nine of the jailed leaders – in which one of them, Jordi Cuixart, said: “I would do it again,” referring to the referendum and the whole independence push.

Later, his organization and Catalonia’s president adopted his phrase and turned it into a motto: “We will do it again.”

During the trial sessions, the former Spanish president testified that he had nothing to do with the police violence during the referendum. Some leading police officials also appeared, including the prosecuted former head of the Catalan police, who said there was a plan to arrest the government.

The public prosecutor has pressed charges that include rebellion and misuse of public funds, and requests up to 25 years in jail for each defendant. The verdict is now pending and expected to be out in the fall, while nine officials continue behind bars, some for 21 months.

Esquerra’s rising hegemony and Puigdemont’s push for EU

Six of the jailed officials were involved in elections held this year, including Esquerra’s president, Oriol Junqueras. He and others took part in political events from prison.

In April, his party won the Spanish election in Catalonia for the first time in 80 years, gaining a record 15 MPs, with Socialists coming second. 

A month later, Esquerra was also the most voted party in the local election, including in Barcelona – although post-electoral talks resulted in mayor Ada Colau, who came second, holding on to power.

Surveys also predict Esquerra would prevail in a future Catalan election, but it was Puigdemont and his Junts per Catalunya party who did best in the EU election. Yet, neither he, nor Toni Comín nor Oriol Junqueras, all either in exile or jail, were allowed to take up their seats. Their case is now before the EU courts.

Broken talks between governments, Spain deadlocked

In the first few months of the season, the Catalan and Spanish governments engaged in some talks, culminating in a meeting on December 20 and a statement committing them to “dialogue.”

Spain’s Socialist president Pedro Sánchez agreed on including a ‘mediator’ in the negotiations – but this caused a political storm among the Spanish parties on the right and part of the Socialists. 

The ultimate outcome was a snap election and subsequent failed coalition talks between Spanish left-leaning groups, partly due to the unresolved issue of Catalonia. 

Highs and lows in tension on the streets

Catalans are now used to demonstrations, and last autumn they saw some peaks. On October 1, a year since the referendum, widespread demonstrations, road cuts, and disruptions were experienced across the country, as on December 21, to protest against the Spanish government visit to Barcelona. 

  • "I would do it again"

    Jordi Cuixart · Jailed pro-independence activist

Some other protests were held, including one on the anniversary of the Spanish Constitution, but the spring and summer have so far been calmer on the streets. 

Stand-off in independence issue continues, disagreements arise

Looking at surveys this year, the years-long stand-off between pro-independence and unionist campaigners continues. The latest shows a 44% to 48% balance, but this has been shifting slightly throughout the whole season (last November it was 47% to 43%).

The government is made up of two parties in favor of a Catalan state, Junts per Catalunya and Esquerra, but due to the elections and differences on the way forward in their independence push, their relationship is now tense. A united reaction to a potential guilty verdict in the referendum trial is yet to be seen, and chances are that a snap election will be called next season. The unionist Ciutadans party has already picked its frontrunner: Lorena Roldán.

The July poll estimates that Esquerra, together with Junts per Catalunya and also the pro-independence CUP party, would retain an absolute majority in the chamber in the event of an election. 

President threatened with being barred from office

During the whole season, there has been a back and forth between pro-independence and unionist parties on whether yellow ribbons in favor of the jailed and exiled leaders can be displayed on public buildings. The electoral authority has fined president Torra for that, and the public prosecutor has requested he be barred from office for 20 months – he might face trial next season. 

Hardship in handling day-to-day issues

Meanwhile, the Catalan government has not been able to pass a budget for this year, which has led to demands by the opposition for the president to step down and to call a new election.

In November, several public servant sectors went on strike for a whole week, and held several thousand-strong protests.

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  • Activist Jordi Cuixart testifying in Catalan trial on June 12, 2019

  • Activist Jordi Cuixart testifying in Catalan trial on June 12, 2019