Catalan premier refuses to remove separatist symbols from public buildings

This marks the second time that Quim Torra has ignored instructions from election officials, who are seeking to ensure political neutrality ahead of polls in April and May

A yellow ribbon outside the regional government building in Barcelona.
A yellow ribbon outside the regional government building in Barcelona.Massimiliano Minocri

Spanish election officials have given Catalan premier Quim Torra another 24 hours to remove pro-independence symbols from all public buildings owned or run by the regional government.

A week ago, the Central Electoral Board (JEC) reminded the Catalan government that public authorities have the legal obligation to preserve political neutrality ahead of the local, regional, general and European elections coming up in April and May.

Torra had argued that “the estelada flag is a symbol that represents a desire for freedom”

The move chiefly affects public buildings displaying yellow ribbons, used to show support for separatist leaders standing trial for rebellion, and esteladas, the unofficial flags used by supporters of Catalan independence.

The body that monitors elections in Spain has also asked the government delegate in Catalonia, Teresa Cunillera, to check that these instructions are followed, and warned Torra that failure to do so could have administrative and criminal consequences.

But on Tuesday it emerged that Torra would once again ignore the instructions, and will instead request a report from the Catalan ombudsman as to whether the symbols should be removed.

Minister Elsa Artadi said on Tuesday that more information about the regional government’s plans for the symbols would be made public this evening or tomorrow morning. “We will do what the ombudsman tells us,” said Artadi. The deadline given to Torra to remove the material will expire on Tuesday afternoon.

A yellow ribbon on a public building in Catalonia.
A yellow ribbon on a public building in Catalonia.Massimiliano Minocri

The JEC has rejected Torra’s arguments that “the estelada flag is a symbol that represents a desire for freedom and makes a democratic, legitimate, legal and non-violent claim.”

Election officials noted that these symbols may indeed symbolize “the aspirations of one part of Catalan society, but not all of it. It is a legitimate symbol that may be used by political groups in their campaigning, but not by public powers, at least not during election periods, as they have an obligation to maintain rigorous political neutrality as per Article 50.2 of the Electoral Regime Law (LOREG).”

The JEC underscored that a public authority’s legitimacy resides in its respect for the Constitution and the country’s laws. “In a democratic concept of power, there is no other legitimacy than that which is founded on the Constitution.”

Torra had alleged that many public buildings are not owned or managed directly by the Catalan government

Torra had also alleged that many public buildings are not owned or managed directly by the Catalan government, but the JEC said that most of them fall under the stewardship of a regional department, and proposed making a list of those that do not so its managers may be notified.

As for Torra’s claim that government workers have the right to express their personal views, the JEC said that this individual right does not include using public buildings in a partisan way.

This latest decision by the JEC may be appealed before the Supreme Court within a two-month period. Failure to comply with election regulations could entail penalties ranging from €300 to €3,000 as well as criminal consequences.

There is a precedent in the regional and general elections of 2015, when the mayor of Berga, in Barcelona province, refused to take down an estelada from town hall during the campaign period. Montserrat Venturós, of the far-left CUP party, was barred from public office for six months and fined €540.

English version by Susana Urra.

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