Appointing a Catalan president: where are we now?

With the presidential candidate in pre-trial prison, the parliamentary debate to swear him in is delayed amid judicial muddle


The Catalan Parliament during its plenary session on March 1 2018 (by Elisenda Rosanas)
The Catalan Parliament during its plenary session on March 1 2018 (by Elisenda Rosanas) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

March 12, 2018 12:15 PM

Catalonia still has no president more than 80 days since the election was held. The main pro-independence parties have agreed on two candidates for the post, both of whom have been blocked by Spain’s judiciary and government. As a result, the parliament speaker, Roger Torrent, has twice delayed the debate to pick a president, and right now there is no deadline on the horizon. What’s more, there is no unanimity in the pro-independence bloc, something that is essential for its majority in the chamber.

Pro-independence majority not enough

It’s been two and a half months since the pro-independence parties held on to a parliamentary majority in an election last December—and that was with their most prominent leaders either in jail or seeking refuge from Spanish justice in Belgium.

Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) became the most voted pro-independence ticket, winning 34 seats, closely followed by Esquerra Republicana (ERC) with 32 MPs. The far-left CUP came third among the parties in favor of independence with four seats.

After that hard-fought victory, the next step seemed comparatively easy: agreeing on a new president. He or she could then appoint a new executive and put an end to months of direct rule by the Spanish government, which took over the Catalan administration after a declaration of independence in October.

Yet, the name of the next head of government in Catalonia does not only depend on the pro-independence parties. The Spanish government has threatened to prolong the takeover if the candidate put forward is facing criminal charges. In total, 28 Catalan leaders are under investigation for their role in the independence bid, with four currently behind bars.

Puigdemont steps aside

Running in the election from Brussels, Carles Puigdemont became the most voted candidate among the pro-independence parties, thus securing the votes he needed to retake his position as Catalan president.

Yet, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled that he could not be sworn in at a distance. Should he return to the country and hand himself over to the authorities, it would then be up to the Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena to decide whether he could become the president or not.

Torrent decided to postpone Puigdemont’s investiture debate until it became clear whether he could effectively take up his post. That sparked criticism from Puigdemont’s JxCat ticket and the far-left CUP, which saw Torrent’s decision as a concession to the Spanish government.

On March 1, Puigdemont announced that he was temporarily abandoning his bid to reclaim the presidency in order to facilitate the formation of a new government.

Jordi Sànchez, presidential candidate

In his resignation video, Puigdemont pointed to a successor: Jordi Sànchez, his number two in JxCat. Sànchez has been jailed in Madrid since mid-October. Before joining Puigdemont’s ticket, he was the president of the Catalan National Assembly, one of the most influential grassroots organizations in the independence movement.

The Spanish government warned that it would not accept a Sànchez presidency, and it urged the pro-independence parties to appoint a head of government free of criminal charges.

European Court of Human Rights

Yet, the parliament speaker went ahead and nominated him as the presidential candidate after the two main parties in favor of a Catalan state agreed on him. Last week, Jordi Sànchez asked the Spanish Supreme Court for permission to attend the Parliament for his investiture. The judge rejected it on Friday, which led Sànchez’s defense to announce that they would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  

The speaker then decided to postpone the parliamentary debate until the ECHR had its say. However on Sunday, Sànchez’s lawyers changed their minds and said they would not appeal to Strasbourg for the time being, because they first wanted to go through all the Spanish courts. The stalemate is now even worse than before, as an appeal can be made in the same court, and then in the Constitutional Court as a last resort, which makes the calendar uncertain.

The investiture countdown

The law says that an investiture debate needs to be held up to 40 days after the election. And if no candidate for president is elected, a two-month countdown to a new election starts. But as the parliament speaker, Roger Torrent, has twice delayed the debate, there is no deadline on the horizon at the moment. Yet, the unionist Socialist party announced that it will make an appeal in Spain’s Constitutional Court on Monday to force the countdown to begin.

Ciutadans not to seek election of Arrimadas

Although the unionist Ciutadans party won the most votes in the election and became the largest party in the chamber with 36 seats, it was a bittersweet victory: the unionist parties combined do not have enough seats to form an alternative government.

The leader of Spain's ruling People's Party in Catalonia has repeatedly urged Ciutadans to seek the support of other parties in the chamber in order to form an alternative coalition. Yet, Ciutadans announced in a recent press conference that party leader Inés Arrimadas would not try to be sworn-in.

CUP’s dissent

While ERC and JxCat agreed on swearing Sànchez in and announced a pact for the whole term, on March 3 CUP decided to abstain in a vote in the Catalan parliament to make Sànchez president. The far-left party argued that the JxCat and ERC proposal was “total submission to Spanish legality.”

Without CUP’s support, ERC and JxCat could still go ahead with Sànchez’s election regardless. But that would come at a cost: Puigdemont and Toni Comín, another MP in Belgium, would be forced to resign as MPs and cede their seats to party colleagues, as the Spanish Supreme Court will not allow them to vote at a distance.

A party colleague of Puigdemont’s also announced on March 3 that his resignation was not on the table, and urged CUP to help avoid a political stalemate that could lead to a new election—and the risk of losing the parliamentary majority to govern Catalonia.

Thus, at the moment, no candidate has the support of all the pro-independence parties. Next Saturday, CUP will reconsider its position after some amendments were made to the JxCat-ERC pact. But even if it agrees with the two main pro-independence forces, the political stalemate seems far from over.