The inaugural session of Spanish Congress on Tuesday gave a good indication of what to expect during the new political term inside a house that is more fragmented than ever following the snap election of April 28.
At a tense gathering that lasted slightly under five hours, four Catalan lawmakers who were allowed out of preventive prison to take oath used atypical formulas to swear allegiance to the Constitution they are on trial for allegedly breaking.
Congress speaker Meritxell Batet
Their words were nearly drowned out by shouts from other newly elected deputies, particularly those from the far-right Vox party, which has entered parliament for the first time on a promise to defend Spanish unity. Other opposition leaders said the separatists’ claims about political persecution were an insult to Spanish democracy, and accused the new speaker of the house, Meritxell Batet, of excessive leniency.
The whole event was presided by a 73-year-old deputy named Agustín Javier Zamarrón who became a trending topic on Twitter because of his uncanny resemblance to Ramón del Valle-Inclán, an early 20th-century writer famous for his fiercely satirical depictions of Spanish society (see sidebar).
Meritxell Batet, a deputy for Barcelona with the Catalan branch of the Socialist Party (PSC), was elected the new speaker of the lower house with 175 votes in favor from her own group, from the leftist Unidas Podemos, and from the smaller regional groups Compromís, Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), Canaries Coalition and the Regionalist Party of Cantabria.
The main opposition Popular Party (PP), the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) and the Catalan separatist parties did not support the nomination. This configuration of forces could become a common sight at future votes inside a house where the Socialists and their allied parties are one seat shy of an overall majority.
In her acceptance speech, Batet urged lawmakers to work toward “building broad consensus.” She said that no single party can claim to represent Spain: “Each one of us is part of the people, but we are not the people.”
“We need to talk”
One of the most unusual scenes of the day was the handshake and brief exchange of words between acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), who is on trial for rebellion over the failed secession attempt of 2017. Junqueras and four other separatist leaders were allowed out of jail to attend the inaugural session of parliament, although they will likely be suspended until the Supreme Court reaches a verdict.
When he first entered the chamber, Junqueras walked right by Sánchez’s seat and both men shook hands. Later, around mid-morning, Junqueras approached the acting PM, who asked: “How are you doing?” To which the ERC leader replied: “We need to talk.”
The head of the Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, questioned Sánchez over this exchange and demanded “transparency” about the relationship between the Socialist leader and the Catalan separatists. Before winning the snap election, Sánchez had been accused by the opposition of making concessions to pro-independence parties in exchange for their political support.
The 24 deputies for Vox arrived early and took up the seats right behind the acting PM, even though this area is traditionally occupied by members of the Socialist group. Vox leader Santiago Abascal was the first deputy to pledge allegiance to the Spanish Constitution, and he did so with a: “For Spain, I do swear.”
But there was a wide variety of oaths. The most controversial formula was the one used by Catalan separatists, who introduced claims about being “political prisoners” and “compelled by law” to swear allegiance. Some swore “to the Catalan republic” rather than Spain, although their statements were barely audible amid the table-banging and shouts of “fuera, fuera” (out, out).
Members of the anti-austerity Podemos took their oath “for democracy and social rights,” while deputies for United Left promised to uphold “democracy and a republic.” There was one time when the entire chamber broke out in laughter: when Juan López de Uralde, leader of the green group Equo, took his oath “for democracy, for social rights, and for the entire planet.”
The din moved the new speaker to admonish the deputies: “What should be on display here today is not scenes of shouting and disrespect, but a display of refined intelligence, brilliant rhetoric and political defense. The former debases our representatives and offends the people they represent.”
English version by Susana Urra.