The new Catalan regional parliament, elected a month ago, met for the first time this week, tasked with finding a way through the mess of the independence question. As is often the case, the first test of strength was for the election of a speaker.
The pro-independence parties, although they only won 47.5% of the vote between them, hold 70 of the 135 seats. However, eight of their members were not present: three are in jail awaiting trial for their part in last year’s unilateral declaration of independence, and another five – including the deposed premier, Carles Puigdemont – are fugitives in Belgium.
So the first question was whether those eight could vote by proxy. Parliamentary rules apparently permit this “if the deputy is on maternity or paternity leave, sick or permanently incapacitated,” and while being in prison is not technically covered, it’s fair to argue that it comes within the spirit of the rule. The Spanish court did not object, and the three deputies concerned were therefore allowed to lodge proxies.
The five who are in Belgium, however, are more of a stretch, so, perhaps wisely, they did not press their entitlement to proxies. That left the pro- and anti-independence forces level, on 65 seats each.
When it came to a vote, however, the eight deputies from the far-left Catalonia in Common abstained: although opposed to independence, they also oppose Madrid’s heavy-handed intervention in the region, and were not willing to endorse the nominee of the more centralist Ciudadanos, or Citizens. That enabled Roger Torrent, from the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), to win the job on the second ballot.
But electing a premier is going to be harder. Puigdemont’s party is set on renominating him, but even if he can vote by proxy from Belgium, it seems clear that he can’t be sworn in by proxy. And his ally ERC is not going to press the point, because it would prefer the job for its leader, Oriol Junqueras, one of the three detained deputies – apparently on the theory that getting bail, or even day leave from prison, is more likely than getting Puigdemont back from Brussels.
The troubles don’t end there. Critical to the pro-independence majority are the four votes from the far-left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), who are demanding that their partners be more forthright in “implementing” the declaration of independence, which in the circumstances is a call for civil war in Catalonia. Unsurprisingly, no-one else is very keen on that; Torrent in particular struck a notably conciliatory tone after his election as speaker, saying he wants “to contribute to mending Catalan society.”
A return to “normality” of some sort obviously has a great deal of appeal for voters on both sides. But the obstacles are considerable, and come at least as much from Madrid as from Barcelona.
If CUP withdraws its support, it’s hard to see how a pro-independence premier can be elected, except via some sort of deal with Catalonia in Common. Its preference would be for a broad left government with both ERC and the Socialists, but that combination is also well short of a majority – even if the latter two could somehow be induced to bury their differences on independence.
The first vote on a new premier has to be held by 31 January, and that then sets the clock running for two months by which a new government has to be in place, otherwise a fresh election must be held. Since Catalans have already been to the polls six times in three and a half years, that is unlikely to be a popular option.