Five keys to understanding the Catalan Parliament deadlock

Lack of united strategy in pro-independence bloc, figure of Puigdemont, and threat of more politicians going to jail among main points

The empty Catalan parliament with yellow ribbons on May 12 2018 (by Marc Rovira)
The empty Catalan parliament with yellow ribbons on May 12 2018 (by Marc Rovira) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

October 6, 2018 12:14 PM

The Catalan Parliament is facing deadlock – again. After taking five months to swear in a president earlier in the year, no plenary sessions were held from mid-July to October 2. Then on Thursday, the first to take place in the past two and a half months was interrupted and postponed.

The session will resume on Tuesday at 3pm. But why is the chamber not working as expected? Here are five keys to understanding the situation.

1. Suspension of jailed and exiled MPs

It all started on July 10, when the Spanish Supreme Court ordered the temporary suspension of six MPs in jail or exile until the verdict of their upcoming trial was out.

This included former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, and his former vice president, Oriol Junqueras.

In mid-July, the pro-independence parties struggled to agree on a united response to this ruling, and so the Parliament speaker decided to call off sessions until October 2, to give them time to find common ground – to the opposition's outrage.

After eleventh-hour negotiations, in the plenary session on October 2, the Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) and Esquerra (ERC) parties passed an agreed solution to the impasse in Parliament –rejecting the suspension of the MPs, but at the same time opening the door for them to designate a substitute. 

Yet, only ERC did that, while Puigdemont’s party insisted their MPs would continue to vote through a delegate as they have been doing for the past few months.

This discrepancy made the two main pro-independence groups got stuck again. 

After a five-hour meeting, both forces agreed on accepting JxCat members delegating their votes instead of designating a substitute (as ERC did) as long as the affected MPs requested it themselves, but the chamber lawyer did not endorse it, thus prompting the speaker to delay the session again.

2. Disobeying or not disobeying

Everything revolves around the consequences of disobeying the Spanish judiciary. When this happened in the previous term, it ended in direct rule, imprisonments, and exile.

And this term the underlying debate is still the same, but there now seems to be less unity of action in the independence camp.

Junts per Catalunya is determined to fight "judicial interference in political life," and in January it was ready to swear in its leader, Carles Puigdemont, despite the Spanish courts' veto.

Meanwhile, Esquerra is taking a more moderate approach – the party led by Oriol Junqueras says it wants "effective" solutions rather than "symbolic" ones.

Meanwhile, the far-left CUP party, whose votes are essential for a pro-independence majority in the chamber, is urging the parties to explicitly "disobey," while part of the people supporting the movement want to see more progress towards the Catalan Republic.

3. Figure of Puigdemont

The only MP suspended by Spain's Supreme Court who is not in prison is Carles Puigdemont, and his group, Junts per Catalunya, claimed in July that his case was different from the other five representatives affected by the ruling – and so, maintained it could not apply to him.

The current Catalan president, Quim Torra, also a member of this group, said several times that the best day of his term will be the day Puigdemont can be reinstated as president, after he was sacked by Madrid last October.

While this is not possible at the moment, as he is in Brussels and the judiciary will not let him be sworn in by proxy, his chances would be reduced to zero if he were replaced as an MP.

In Catalonia, the president has to previously have been an active MP – that is why JxCat is so keen to find a way for him to keep all his rights as an MP.

4. Prison threat

But the pressure to react is not only on ERC and JxCat. The parliament speaker, Roger Torrent (ERC), is the one who has to allow any agreement between the two groups.

And he will be the main person responsible for any final decision before the Spanish judiciary.

The main unionist party in the Catalan chamber, Ciutadans, has said it is preparing a criminal lawsuit against him and other bureau members.

Ciutadans has also reminded him "how his predecessor ended up," referring to the former speaker, Carme Forcadell, who has now been in pre-trial jail for half a year accused of rebellion, a crime which can carry up to 30 years behind bars.   

5. New elections at stake

A fresh election was hanging in the air in the Parliament corridors on Thursday, as the five-hour summit of the main pro-independence leaders dragged on.

The parties supporting the government could not agree, thereby threatening the survival of the coalition executive.

Junts per Catalunya and ERC know that if they cannot find a way out of the current crisis – or any future one related to disobeying Spain's laws – the country is very likely to face a fresh election.