Seven keys to understand Catalan politics as 2018-2019 term starts

Trial to jailed and exiled pro-independence leaders is sure to shape year ahead

A picture of the empty Parliament with the signs of pro-independence CUP party on their seats on January 30 2018 (by Rafa Garrido)
A picture of the empty Parliament with the signs of pro-independence CUP party on their seats on January 30 2018 (by Rafa Garrido) / ACN

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

August 28, 2018 05:32 PM

As the political year in Catalonia starts this week, no one expects such an unprecedented situation as the one experienced last term. Last autumn saw a referendum on independence and a violent crackdown by Spanish police, a declaration of independence, imposition of direct rule in the country, and political leaders ending up in jail or in exile.

Yet, the consequences of those episodes will continue to make themselves felt throughout the 2018-2019 term, and could again lead to tensions peaking between Catalonia and Spain. One example is that a number of the pro-independence politicians who were locked up last November are still behind bars. Let's take a look at seven keys for understanding the political year as it gets underway.

1. Trial for rebellion and potential prison sentences

The upcoming trial of 25 Catalan leaders after last year's independence bid is sure to shape the political year ahead.

The trial could take place this autumn, or right at the beginning of 2019, and is very likely to last for weeks, with the verdict still many months away.

Some 13 politicians are being prosecuted for rebellion, including former president Puigdemont and vice president Junqueras –although the former and six more officials won't be tried as they are in exile abroad.

If found guilty of rebellion, those in the dock could face a 30-year prison sentence, which would no doubt prompt some opposing reaction from the independence movement and the Catalan government.

In the meantime, five jailed leaders who are also MPs, plus Puigdemont, have been suspended as lawmakers by Spain’s judiciary –the Catalan Parliament has until October 2 to react to this.  

2. Autumn anniversary and mobilizations

October 1 will again be relevant in Catalan politics a year after the referendum took place amid Spanish police violence that injured over a thousand people.

One major pro-independence civic organization is considering calling a work stoppage for that day, similar to the one held two days after last October’s referendum.

The anniversaries of the vote, the declaration of independence (October 27) and the incarceration of the first leaders (October 16) are likely to prompt major pro-independence demonstrations.

Meanwhile, September 11, Catalonia’s National Day, will see another major mobilization in favor of self-determination for the seventh year in a row.

At a moment when the independence movement seems less enthusiastic, these anniversaries might serve to give it new momentum.

3. Difficult dialogue with Spain

The Catalan president committed to "making [the Catalan Republic] a reality" last week. "We don't have to defend ourselves, but rather to attack this unfair Spanish state," said Quim Torra, who later replaced the word ‘attack’ with 'accuse.'

Yet, Torra has also opened the way for dialogue with his Spanish counterpart, with one meeting held in July and another set to take place this autumn in Barcelona.

Torra aims to persuade Pedro Sánchez to accept an agreed referendum on self-determination. However, this is highly unlikely, and whether failing to reach this compromise might lead to a new peak in tension remains to be seen.

4. Yellow ribbons and tension in the streets

The political season has started with a controversy over the displaying in public places of yellow ribbons showing solidarity with the jailed and exiled leaders.

While some activists are putting up such symbols across the country, others are removing them –something promoted by some political parties.

This situation has already led to some clashes and incidents, and the unionist Ciutadans party says this is evidence of a "social fracture" in the country. The party has called a demonstration to condemn supposed attacks on people removing yellow ribbons, and a plenary session in Parliament on "social coexistence" requested by Ciutadans will take place this autumn.

Meanwhile, the Catalan police is to be investigated by the Spanish judiciary and authorities for their role in these developments.  

5. The battle for control of the narrative abroad

The former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is determined to continue his "international activity to fight for the freedom of the Catalan Republic" by travelling to as many countries as he can.  

With the failed extradition requests and the lawsuit in Belgium against the investigating judge in the independence case, pro-independence leaders abroad are attempting to make their 'battle' international. The case of the jailed and exiled leaders has also been taken to the United Nations, and all these elements and proceedings might unfold this season.

The extent of Puigdemont's influence in the Catalan government and Catalan politics in general is yet to be seen.

Whether the Spanish judiciary issues a third extradition request for the exiled leaders is not ruled out either, despite the failure of two previous attempts.  

6. Upcoming elections and reactivating the push for independence

The potential prison sentences for some jailed leaders, but also upcoming local and European elections in May 2019, might be "opportunities" to reactivate the push for independence, according to the Catalan president.

The local vote especially will act a good barometer to weigh up the strength of the independence and unionist movements.

On September 4 the Catalan president Quim Torra will hold a conference on the road towards independence. 

7. Day-to-day affairs

The peak in tension between Catalonia and Spain ended with no government, no Parliament and no self-rule for the country for seven months.

Now both the executive and Parliament will have to catch up and show, despite the ongoing conflict, whether the country’s day-to-day affairs can move forward.

The first big test will be for the government to get Parliament's support to pass the 2019 budget. However, it is far from clear that they will succeed in this goal.