Jailed leaders join colleagues on first day of campaigning amidst criticism from unionist parties

Catalan High Court confirms February 14 election date despite Covid-19 concerns

JxCat's presidential candidate Laura Borràs at a campaign event in Reus with jailed leaders on temporary leave, Josep Rull and Jordi Turull, as well as Albert Batet (by Bernat Vilaró)
JxCat's presidential candidate Laura Borràs at a campaign event in Reus with jailed leaders on temporary leave, Josep Rull and Jordi Turull, as well as Albert Batet (by Bernat Vilaró) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

January 29, 2021 08:10 PM

On Friday morning, eight of the nine jailed independence leaders exited prison on regained leave permits and joined their fellow politicians on the campaign trail ahead of the February 14 election.

Hours later, Catalonia's High Court confirmed the date of the vote, thereby rejecting the government's decree delaying the election over Covid-19 concerns in a move that is likely to embolden parties in their final push to gain the electorate's backing.

The temporary release of the imprisoned 2017 referendum organizers and the court's rejection of the Catalan authorities' postponement as the campaign period officially took off understandably dominated headlines on Friday.

Former vice president Oriol Junqueras, who heads left-wing pro-independence Esquerra Republicana party (ERC), spoke to reporters outside Lledoners prison as he was leaving about the importance of tackling the Covid-19 crisis: "We have a country to lift up, a pandemic to overcome, and an economy to recover."

Marta Vilalta of Junqueras' party also stressed the severity of the pandemic, describing the court ruling as an "imposition" that was "contrary to health recommendations" but still urged electors to vote for ERC from a political event in Lleida.

The presidential candidate for the far-left CUP party, Dolors Sabater, made a surprise appearance in the Esquerra political rally on Friday evening to greet jailed leaders Junqueras and Raül Romeva. Earlier on the day, she urged the Catalan government to "defy" Spain’s Supreme Court orders if judges decide again to revoke the day-leave permits, like they did two months ago. 

Junts per Catalunya's jailed leaders that were also allowed to leave prison two months after Spain's Supreme Court revoked their prior low category permits called on people to vote in two weeks' time.

"We need to head to the polls on February 14," Jordi Sànchez said upon exiting the penitentiary facility, "because we must express the will of the majority in the country to be free." Sànchez is set to attend a JxCat event in Barcelona on Saturday morning with Quim Forn, who is also behind bars, while Josep Rull and Jordi Turull went to one in Reus on Friday evening.

While the Catalan Socialists did not comment on the release of these prisoners, they were criticized by them when they left prison. Former minister Dolors Bassa told the press waiting for her outside prison walls that she assumed the public prosecutor, who is appointed by the Spanish government currently controlled by the Socialists, would once again challenge their day-release permits—a sentiment shared by many others.

Meanwhile, the former Spanish health minister turned Socialist candidate in the Catalan election, Salvador Illa, did pledge 250 million euros to rehabilitate 50,000 homes per year to "recover Catalonia from the bottom-up."

Unionist parties criticize low category status

Inés Arrimadas, leader of Ciudadanos in the Spanish congress, fired a warning shot about the jailed independence leaders gaining more freedom under an ERC presidency. "If Esquerra stays in power, [the jailed independence leaders] will keep their privileges and the Spanish government will pardon them," she said. 

Carlos Carrizosa, the party’s candidate for president in Catalonia, echoed the same sentiments. "[ERC] will continue to do the same, worrying about the fate of ten people and not 7.5 million Catalans."

Alejandro Fernández of the People's Party was suspicious about the timing of the prison privileges being granted. "It is too much of a coincidence that [the jailed independence leaders] were granted leave permits coinciding with the beginning of the election campaign period."

On the first day of campaigning, the only political event by far-right VOX was attending the debate organized by La Vanguardia newspaper. VOX leader Ignacio Garriga accused the Socialist candidate Salvador Illa, who resigned as Spanish health minister to run in the election, of "being responsible for the deaths of thousands of Spaniards," only to be reprimanded by Illa himself and unionist allies Cs.

ECP calls on ERC and the Socialists to overcome 'vetoes'

While the start of the election campaign has reinvigorated political animosity between the Socialists and Esquerra party, the left-wing En Comú Podem party has urged them to overcome political vetoes and open the door to a progressive alliance including unionist and pro-independence parties. "In Spain, we passed the most ambitious budget ever with the votes of progressive parties. Doesn’t Catalonia deserve a change too?" said Jéssica Albiach, the presidential candidate of ECP. She called on Esquerra to give up forming a new pro-independence government with Junts per Catalunya, accusing them of having "supremacist tendencies."

The center-right PDeCAT party, which was part of the JxCat candidacy, now lashes out at their former colleagues, and asks pro-independence supporters if they want them and ERC to stay in power and continue to "mismanage" the government. PDeCAT launched a campaign on Friday urging its followers to vote by mail, with references to Illa and former US president Donald Trump, saying they "don’t want you to vote."