RPT: REVIEW - Catalan Crisis Takes Another Turn As Regional Leader Stands Trial For 'Disobedience'

BRUSSELS (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 20th November, 2019) Gripped by protests against lengthy prison terms that the Spanish Supreme Court has handed to pro-independence leaders, Catalonia is now witnessing yet another high-profile judicial process as President Quim Torra stands trial for defying electoral rules a development that may not only cost him his office but also deepen the political crisis in Spain.

The High Court of Justice of Catalonia charged Torra with disobedience for defying the Spanish central electoral commission's order to remove pro-independence symbols and yellow ribbons in support of the jailed politicians from government buildings during the recent election campaigns in April and May. The anti-Catalan right-wing Vox party is acting as a private prosecutor in the trial.

During the first hearing on Monday, the Catalan leader admitted to disobeying the order of the electoral watchdog, saying that he considered the requirement "unlawful."

If found guilty of disobedience, Torra risks being barred from public office for up to two years, which would likely trigger new regional elections and further stoke tensions in the divided kingdom.

Catalonia's parliament elected Torra as the new president in May of 2018 after his predecessor and close ally, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Belgium to avoid the fate of his ministers who had been put into custody in connection with the unsanctioned independence referendum in 2017.

Torra has continued with the pro-independence agenda. Apart from defying electoral rules, he has been criticized by Madrid for being slow to condemn the violent pro-independence protests that broke out in October.

In last week's surprise interview with the Al Jazeera broadcaster, he, however, argued that "the violence is not compatible with the independence process of Catalonia." He also said that he aimed to offer acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez negotiations about the future of the region.

According to Torra, the Catalan government is "going to put on the table what we think could be the solution to the conflict," in other words, an "agreed referendum, internationally validated, in order to give to the Catalan people to say if they want to be independent or not."

However, no Spanish party in Madrid supports the idea of an independence referendum. Those on the right of the political spectrum, such as Vox, strictly oppose it, while the Socialists of Sanchez and their left-wing ally, Podemos, realize that their only chance of forming a left coalition government after the November 10 election is to gain the support of Catalan parties, so their stance is much softer.

FALLING SUPPORT FOR INDEPENDENCE

Catalonia has had a large autonomy since 1979, reinforced in 2006, but what the regional leadership wants now is full secession. Yet, there is no unanimity in Catalonia for independence far from it.

The population is roughly divided in two. Over the decades, many Spaniards used to come to live in Barcelona and other Catalan cities, through marriage or for work, since the economy of the region was flourishing. As a result, there is a large part of the population that barely speaks the Catalan language.

Next to these, who are expected to vote against independence or abstain, there are many Catalans who see the economic difficulties that would ensue, such as the need to re-apply for EU membership, loss of the euro as the official Currency and obligation to shoulder part of Spain's public debt.

As for the businesses, they have officially declared their opposition to the partition, arguing that for most companies, the major market is the rest of Spain. Dozens of companies have already moved their head office to other parts of Spain to avoid a possible backlash or a boycott of their products by Spanish consumers.

Last week's poll by the Catalan regional government's CEO survey institute also indicated that the region's support for secession had fallen from 44 percent in the summer to 41.9. The number of those rejecting the independence hit an all-time high since July 2017, totaling 48.8 percent.

Yet, people supporting the independence believe that this cause is backed by a majority.

"The pro-independence movement is thoroughly democratic and does not want to impose independence if the people of Catalonia refuse it, but the last referendum, considered illegal by Madrid, has shown a clear majority for the independence of Catalonia," Josep-Maria Terricabras, a professor of philosophy at the University of Girona and former European Parliament member for the Republican Left of Catalonia, told Sputnik.

Terricabras added that if "the future left coalition" of Sanchez and Catalan parties "could find an agreement for such a referendum, then the Catalans will vote for it, and the peaceful process can start."

VOX POSITIONED ITSELF THANKS TO THE TRIAL OF EX-CATALAN MINISTERS

The parties on the right, in turn, would unlikely stand by in this case. Vox, the conservative People's Party of former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the liberal Citizens are all opposed to the independence cause.

In particular, the right-wing Vox party, founded in 2013, managed to ramp up its public support obviously partly due to being among the prosecuting voices at the Madrid trial against former Catalan officials involved in the unsanctioned referendum. The party acted in the trial as a private prosecutor, maintaining that the push for a "binding" referendum was a "clear attempt to subvert the constitutional order" and "disintegrate the territorial unity of the State."

The defense of Catalan politicians even lodged an appeal with the court, demanding that the right-wing party be expelled from the proceedings. The judiciary dismissed it, albeit taking note of the "risk of transferring the political dispute to the legal process."

Lawyer Javier Ortega Smith, the Vox secretary-general, therefore did take part in the televised trial. This gave a huge prominence to the tough positions of Vox and partly explains their great success in the November general election. The party more than doubled the number of seats in parliament from 24 to 52.

GORDIAN KNOT OF SPANISH POLITICS

Now, the party similarly intends to defend the law in the current trial against Torra, according to Jorge Buxade Villalba, a European Parliament member for Vox.

"VOX has a great respect for the law and we cannot accept that a public representative, who should follow the principles of exemplarity and good behavior, steadily breaks the law. In the case of Quim Torra and his separatist gang, this habit has become pathological. That is why we are taking part in this cause as private prosecution," Buxade told Sputnik.

According to Buxade, Catalonia has crossed the "border between civilization and barbarism," with lawlessness and "barbarians spreading terror in the streets" of the protest-hit region.

"VOX is determined to make the Catalonian authorities respect the law or face the consequences. We have also proposed the banning of separatist parties for their attacks on the Spanish unity, national sovereignty and Constitution," he added.

The Catalan issue thus remains a Gordian knot that proves nearly impossible to break for Sanchez, who is trying again to form a coalition on the left of the political spectrum, with the Basque and the Catalan parties, following the repeat of the inconclusive vote in November.