The bitter debate over Catalonia, Spain’s most restive region, intensified on Friday night when the country’s central electoral commission ruled that the pro-independence head of the local government should be barred from his post.
The decision on Quim Torra, who has headed Catalonia’s administration for two years, is all the more explosive because Spain’s parliament is about to vote on a new leftwing government led by Pedro Sánchez, the caretaker prime minister. Catalan separatists are set to play a decisive role in those deliberations.
The electoral commission’s knife-edge ruling — by seven votes to six — also highlighted huge divergences within the Spanish political system about the workings of the country’s state institutions.
“We have serious doubts that the Central Electoral Commission is competent to take these decisions,” said Adriana Lastra, the parliamentary spokeswoman for Mr Sánchez’s Socialist party, as she urged Spain’s Supreme Court to rule on the issue as soon as possible. “It is not a judicial body, it is merely administrative.”
Mr Torra himself called for an extraordinary session of the Catalan regional parliament to reject the commission’s move, which he compared to Madrid’s decision in 2017 to suspend the region’s government after a botched independence bid that year. “This is a state coup against Catalan institutions,” he said. “As long as the [Catalan] parliament is in agreement, I will remain Catalan president.”
But Spain’s right-of-centre parties — which had asked the commission to disbar Mr Torra — celebrated the decision as a victory for the rule of law.
Pablo Casado, head of the main opposition People’s party, called for Mr Sánchez to force Mr Torra to step down “to comply with his constitutional obligations”.
The fallout from the decision appears almost certain to intensify tensions between Catalan separatists and Madrid at precisely the time that Mr Sánchez is seeking parliament’s backing to form a coalition government with the far-left Podemos party.
The decision stemmed from a court ruling last month to disqualify Mr Torra from public office for a year-and-a-half because he had displayed political symbols — such as yellow ribbons denoting sympathy with imprisoned Catalan separatists — in public buildings during an election period.
That ruling did not take immediate effect, since an appeal could be made to the supreme court. Catalonia’s own electoral commission subsequently turned down the request by Spain’s three biggest right-of-centre parties to eject Mr Torra from his post ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision.
But on Friday evening the central electoral commission — superior to the Catalan body — held that Mr Torra could no longer continue as a deputy in Catalonia’s regional parliament, a position necessary for him to remain president of the region’s administration.
Its ruling came on the eve of the parliamentary debate on whether to back the formation of a new government after Spain’s inconclusive general election in November.
Because the Socialists and Podemos are far short of a majority, they need Catalan separatists to abstain in the votes, which are scheduled to take place on Sunday and Tuesday.
The Socialists have only just obtained the agreement of the biggest pro-independence party, the Catalan Republican Left, or ERC, to abstain.
“The political implications of the Electoral Commission’s decision could be enormous,” said Pablo Simón, professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III University. He argued that the political cost for the ERC of allowing Mr Sánchez to form a government would increase, amid heightening legal and political uncertainty.
Mr Torra’s party, Junts per Catalunya, disagrees with the ERC’s decision to abstain and favours a more confrontational approach towards Mr Sánchez.
One leading leftwinger who has been tipped as a possible minister in the prospective coalition government immediately expressed his fury at the decision.
“The Spanish right, through its reactionary judicial arm, has barred Torra from office,” tweeted Alberto Garzón, leader of the radical United Left party. “We have a very grave problem with . . . judicial power in Spain.”
The electoral commission is made up of eight members of the Spanish Supreme Court plus five experts nominated by political parties.