Spain’s Supreme Court has ruled that the leader of Catalonia’s government should be barred from public office for 18 months, in a decision set to bring down the regional administration and bring forward elections.
The unanimous verdict against Quim Torra, which also imposed a €30,000 fine on him, upholds a previous sentence by the Catalan supreme court last year.
The ruling is the latest indication of the legal and political turmoil sparked by the dispute over Catalan independence, a cause championed by Mr Torra and one of the most divisive issues in Spanish regional and national politics.
The court found Mr Torra to have disobeyed electoral rules by displaying political materials — such as a banner calling for Catalan prisoners to be freed — in public buildings during the run-up to elections in April 2019.
The court censured Mr Torra for his “repeated, stubborn and obstinate resistance” to electoral authorities’ demands for him to remove such political symbols, which also included yellow ribbons in support of the prisoners.
“Once again, the Spanish state is interfering in our democratic institutions,” Carles Puigdemont, Mr Torra’s predecessor as head of the Catalan administration, responded on Twitter.
Catalan politics is still overshadowed by the illegal independence referendum held by Mr Puigdemont’s administration in October 2017 and its subsequent unilateral declaration of independence.
The Supreme Court handed down jail sentences for sedition last year to nine senior Catalan politicians for their involvement in the events of 2017. Mr Puigdemont fled to Belgium to avoid trial.
After a period of direct rule by Madrid and elections in December 2017, Mr Torra became leader of the regional administration, but has largely deferred to Mr Puigdemont — now based in Waterloo — while in office.
Monday’s decision against Mr Torra, which will take effect after it has been formally adopted by the Catalan supreme court, pushes the region towards early elections — which had been planned before the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Mr Torra’s deputy, Pere Aragonés, a member of the Republican Catalan Left, or ERC, a rival separatist party to Mr Puigdemont’s grouping, is likely to become the region’s caretaker leader.
But with Catalonia’s parliament set against installing a permanent replacement for Mr Torra, elections are widely expected by February next year.
Catalan voters are roughly evenly split between supporters of independence and those who want to remain part of Spain, and some of the toughest electoral rivalries are within the separatist camp.
Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, argued that Mr Puigdemont’s allies would probably use Mr Torra’s sentence in their campaign against the ERC, which is leading in the polls.
Its separatist rivals want to depict it as too keen to co-operate with the central government in Madrid. “They were looking for something that could set their campaign alight,” he said.
The ERC has been talking to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s minority coalition about supporting its budget plans — an existential issue for the national government.
In parallel, Mr Sánchez’s coalition is proceeding with plans to change the law on sedition and has begun processing requests to pardon the nine convicted Catalan leaders.
“The fate of the budget could be decided by the political process in Catalonia and in particular by the ERC’s ability to withstand pressure from Puigdemont’s allies,” Mr Bartomeus added.