Carles (1962- ), Catalonia (Spain), Demonstrations, Pedro (1972- ), Politics and Government, Protests and Riots, Puigdemont, Quim, Referendums, Sanchez Perez-Castejon, Secession and Independence Movements, Torra
Catalonia Separatists Urge a Show of Strength on the Streets
September 9, 2018
MADRID — Almost a year after failing to secede from Spain, the separatist politicians who govern Catalonia plan another show of force on Tuesday, with the celebration of the region’s national day.
In a defiant speech this past week, Catalonia’s leader, Quim Torra, urged people to take to the streets to protest the imprisonment of separatist leaders who carried out a secession referendum last October that prompted the regional Parliament to declare independence.
The referendum had been declared unconstitutional, and the central government then suspended the region’s autonomy and imposed direct rule from Madrid, until Mr. Torra took office in June.
Since then, events “have done nothing but reinforce the legitimacy of the cause for independence and for the republic” of Catalonia, Mr. Torra said in his speech delivered in the Catalan national theater.
That tough talk, though, offered no specifics to put Catalonia firmly back on the road to independence. Mr. Torra’s fragile coalition of separatist parties is split over whether to provoke another clash with Madrid or accept the offer of Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, to return to political dialogue.
Separatist leaders also realize that any further violation of the Constitution could land them before the Supreme Court. Roughly two dozen former colleagues are to face trial by the end of the year on charges tied to the secessionist efforts, including some who were denied bail and are in prison awaiting trial. Others, however, including Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan leader who fled to Belgium after independence was declared, have refused to return to Spain to face prosecution.
Just as Mr. Torra’s coalition bonds are weak, so is Mr. Sánchez’s grip on power in Madrid. The prime minister leads a minority Socialist government that is under intense pressure, particularly from the center-right, to resist Mr. Torra and if he refuses to abandon secessionism, to reinstate direct rule over Catalonia.
“We’ve reached a moment of stagnation that has nothing to do with the open confrontation of a year ago,” the Catalan political columnist Josep Ramoneda said in a phone interview. “But it doesn’t mean that we’re close to resolving the problem of Catalonia.”
The Catalan leadership has expressed hope that the national day on Tuesday, known as the Diada, will draw major demonstrations in support of independence as well as widespread displays of yellow ribbons, the symbol of those opposed to the jailing of Catalan politicians. Prominent figures including Pep Guardiola, the pro-independence Catalan soccer coach of Manchester City, have made public statements while wearing the ribbons.
Mr. Guardiola compared Catalans’ wearing of yellow ribbons to the show of support by Tiger Woods and other golfers toward Jarrod Lyle, a golfer who died recently of cancer.
Mr. Torra said he hoped that Tuesday’s activities would feed another upswell of support on the Oct. 1 anniversary of the independence referendum, which was marred by clashes between Spanish police officers and voters. A clear majority of those voting that day approved independence, but the government immediately declared it null and void, since the referendum itself had been illegal and the recount contested.
There is no evidence that voters have shifted their views much over the past year. An election last December yielded almost the same result as the previous one: A slim majority of separatist lawmakers won control of the Catalan Parliament, to the dismay of the national government. Madrid had hoped the vote would deal a major blow to the independence movement after months of turmoil and the announcement by many companies that they were moving their legal headquarters outside Catalonia to avoid more political instability.
Given the region’s deep divisions, it is unclear if the demonstrations on Tuesday and next month will be peaceful. The Spanish government said last week that it would send 600 riot police officers to help Catalan security forces handle the protests and any backlash. Mr. Torra responded over the weekend that Catalonia “doesn’t need so many policemen but more infrastructure.”
In the past few months, thousands of yellow ribbons have appeared in the region’s streets and squares and on its beaches, prompting clashes between supporters and opponents of independence. In late August, Albert Rivera, the national leader of the Ciudadanos Party, removed yellow ribbons in Alella, a town northeast of Barcelona, and made a public display of throwing them in a trash bag, with some residents shouting insults and calling him a fascist.
This past week, Mr. Rivera denounced as an act of hatred a yellow ribbon painted on the shop his mother owns. “History shows that nationalism always uses the same totalitarian methods: fracture society and spread hatred,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Torra’s appointment as Catalonia’s president allowed the region to regain its autonomy just as Mr. Sánchez was taking office in Madrid, providing a kind of new start on two fronts. But Mr. Torra has since shown that he plans to stay true to the separatist cause, pursuing Mr. Puigdemont’s goals after he was ousted.
Mr. Puigdemont continues to influence Catalan politics from Brussels. He has also tried to turn the tables on a Spanish judge, Pablo Llarena, who sought his extradition, filing a lawsuit in Belgium accusing the judge of failing to impartially investigate the organization of last year’s referendum and of violating his right to a fair trial.
A preliminary hearing is expected in Belgium this month. Mr. Puigdemont’s suit has already embarrassed Mr. Sánchez, the prime minister, who agreed that the state should cover the judge’s legal costs.
Catalan and Basque lawmakers played a pivotal role in Mr. Sánchez’s election in June, helping him unseat Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in an unprecedented vote of no confidence in Parliament. Soon after, Mr. Sánchez invited Mr. Torra to Madrid, following up with a good-will gesture by transferring Catalans jailed in Madrid to prisons in their home region, closer to relatives and lawyers.
Mr. Torra has warned though, that dialogue with Madrid was dependent on the exoneration of the Catalan politicians charged with rebellion and other crimes related to last year’s referendum. “We can only accept absolution in the trials — trials which should never be held,” he said in his speech.
The Spanish prime minister has offered Catalonia a referendum on greater autonomy, but he has firmly ruled out a new vote on independence or a unilateral attempt by Catalonia to secede. Mr. Torra quickly rejected the offer, emphasizing the right to self-determination and the need for a new vote on independence recognized by Spain’s central government.
Mr. Torra’s position seems unlikely to shift until the Madrid trial of Catalan leaders or a new round of elections takes place in Catalonia to help break the deadlock.
“Other than plans to call new regional elections,” the newspaper El País, which has strongly opposed secession, wrote in an editorial last week. “Torra lacks a strategy that might lead to the Catalan republic that he keeps promising to some, and which he tries to use as an extortion tool against others.”