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Catalan elections

23 May 2018 Laurence Allan, Ph.D.

After more than six months without a government, pro-independence MP Quim Torra was elected president of Catalonia on 14 May; the suspension of Catalan autonomy by Article 155 of the constitution is expected to be lifted within the next week, once a Catalan government is formed.

  • Quim Torra's election as Catalan president will enable the central government to cease its application of Article 155 of the constitution restricting the region's political autonomy, but the Spanish government will retain control of Catalan finances.
  • Ongoing legal cases related to the independence referendum of October 2017 will probably trigger mass street protests from October 2018.
  • The two main national-level political parties aim to shift focus from Catalonia to reinvigorate their own popularity before a series of elections.

On 14 May, hard line secessionist Quim Torra was elected as the 131st president of Catalonia by 66 to 65 votes. After four failed attempts to elect a president, the pro-independence parties in parliament managed to swear in Torra, chosen by former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont as his successor. Despite holding an election in December 2017, Catalonia had not been able to elect a new president in a context characterized by the suspension of the region's autonomy and the jailing of, and issuance of European arrest warrants for, pro-independence Catalan politicians on rebellion and sedition charges. In parliament, President Torra claimed that the true president was Puigdemont and vowed to pursue the goals of the Catalan republic declared last October. Torra also announced that he was willing to restore the MPs of the deposed government, all of whom are either in jail or in self-exile. Torra has offered to appoint them again as they are not yet barred from public office. If any of the deposed MPs were to agree to take office again, they would appoint a parallel commissioner who would act from Catalonia and would replace the MP once they were formally charged and thus barred from public office. Although most have refused the offer, three are still considering it. Thus, the formation of the new government, which would automatically lift Article 155 of the constitution, is likely to take a few days.

Article 155 to be lifted
The first immediate consequence of the election of the Catalan president and the formation of a government within the next week is that Catalan autonomy will soon be restored. However, the Spanish government has announced that Catalan finances will continue to be controlled by Madrid and threatened a tougher application of Article 155 if the new Catalan government continues to pursue independence.

Both Torra and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy have publicly offered to enter into dialogue with each other. However, in the current context with the continued legal processes surrounding the Catalan conflict and Torra's stated support for a Catalan republic, a successful negotiation that would end the crisis seems unlikely. In addition, Puigdemont - who is expected to act as "president in the shadows" - has said that he may ask Torra to call an early election if the new Catalan government does not make significant advances.

The election of a Catalan president also has important implications for Spanish politics. The results of the December 2017 Catalan election and recent national-level voting intention polls have clearly shown that the center-right Citizens (Ciudadanos: C's) is the only party that has benefited overall from the Catalan political instability. With municipal, regional, and European elections scheduled within the next 12 months, C's has become the main rival to the governing People's Party (Partido Popular: PP) of Prime Minister Rajoy. The PP is thus willing to turn a page in an effort to move away from the Catalan issue's dominance of the political agenda, which has clearly benefited the competing C's. The main opposition center-left Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español: PSOE) is in a similar position to that of the PP, as the two parties that had effectively formed a long-run two-party system until 2015 in Spain aim to regain some popularity. These two parties will not be "soft" on Catalonia, but will look for more moderate positions towards the Catalan issue than the C's. In addition, the formation of a Catalan government and the restoration of Catalan autonomy will allow the PP minority government to finally pass the 2018 general budget in June (after six months of delay), as the Basque Nationalist Party's (Partido Nacionalista Vasco: PNV) support for this is conditional upon Article 155 being lifted.

Outlook and implications
The election of a Catalan president after six months of complete deadlock between the Spanish government and Catalonia has direct consequences both for Catalan and Spanish politics. Although governance in Catalonia will be complicated for the minority Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya: JxCat)-Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya: ERC) future government, social and economic stability is likely to improve within the next months. However, the progress of court cases derived from the Catalan conflict will remain a source of protests and widespread mobilizations. The key indicator for that will be the expected October start dates of the two trials of politicians from the previous Catalan government accused of sedition and related charges. Those trials are likely to be accompanied by heightened protests by the Committees for the Defense of the Republic (Comités de Defensa de la República: CDRs), self-organized groups operating at the neighborhood and local level that have been the main organizers of road blockades. For example, they temporarily blocked the main Barcelona-France highway near Girona in late March, among several other similar actions in late March/early April in protest at the detention of Puigdemont in Germany. In addition, the restoration of Catalan political autonomy (although the region's finances will continue to be controlled by the central government) will allow Rajoy's government to finally pass its 2018 budget. Nonetheless, dialogue between Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy and Catalan president Torra is unlikely to solve the Catalan conflict as Catalan society remains deeply divided over the issue and pro-independence politicians are still in jail or self-exile. Neither Torra's evident position as Puigdemont's "puppet" nor his own stated positions on Catalan independence suggests a regional president who is likely to move towards a resolution of the issue acceptable to the national government, indicating that a repeat suspension of Catalan autonomy remains likely in the 12-month outlook despite the efforts of the two main national-level political parties to prevent the issue from dominating electoral politics.

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