CATALONIA

Spanish Supreme Court bars Catalan premier from public office for disobedience

The decision means that Quim Torra will have to step down from his position, paving the way for a fresh institutional crisis in Catalonia

Catalan premier Quim Torra on Monday.
Catalan premier Quim Torra on Monday.Enric Fontcuberta / EFE

The Spanish Supreme Court on Monday upheld an 18-month ban from public office handed down to Catalan premier Quim Torra for disobedience. The unanimous sentence is definitive and means that Torra will have to step down as premier, paving the way for a fresh institutional crisis in Catalonia.

The Catalan High Court – which first found the Catalan premier guilty of the accusations – has already begun the process to execute the sentence and has notified Torra’s attorney that the politician is barred from office from today onward.

On December 19, the Catalan High Court found Torra, a hard-line supporter of Catalan independence, guilty of disobedience for failing to remove banners supporting jailed separatist leaders from public buildings during campaigning ahead of elections. The Catalan premier was ordered to take down the signs by Spain’s National Electoral Board (JEC), which argued they violated the rules on maintaining neutrality during election campaigns.

The 18-month ban from public office is definitive, meaning Torra will be forced to step down as Catalan premier in the coming days

The Catalan High Court barred Torra from public office for 18 months and ordered him to pay a fine of €30,000 and the legal costs of the trial. Torra appealed the decision at the Supreme Court, but on Monday, its magistrates upheld the sentence, arguing that the Catalan premier had “stubbornly and obstinately” refused to observe the orders from the JEC.

In the lead up to the May 26 elections, Torra refused to take down a banner from the Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of the Catalan government, which carried messages calling for the release of the politicians and civic association leaders involved in the 2017 secessionist drive in Catalonia. These individuals were being held in custody while their trial for offenses including sedition and misuse of funds was heard in the Supreme Court. In October of last year, the defendants were found guilty and nine of them were given lengthy prison sentences.

Torra also refused to remove esteladas – the unofficial flag adopted by supporters of Catalan independence – and yellow ribbons – a symbol of support for the jailed separatist leaders – from buildings belonging to the regional government.

The Supreme Court’s decision means that Torra will be barred for 18 months from both public office, be it at a local, regional, state or European level, and from local, regional and national government.

In its sentence, the Supreme Court highlighted that Torra is free to exhibit symbols and banners that reflect his political identity but not during an election campaign. The magistrates found that the premier disobeyed the order from the JEC, “which in its role to guarantee the transparency and objectivity of electoral campaigns, prohibited their use.” According to the court, Torra’s attitude violated the principles of neutrality that administrations must adhere to and “contravened express orders from the electoral board.”

The 18-month ban from public office is definitive, meaning Torra will be forced to step down as Catalan premier in the coming days. But he does have one last option: the politician could appeal for protection from the Constitutional Court and ask that the sentence be suspended. However, this would be an unprecedented move: the Constitutional Court has never before accepted this request in cases of public office bans. It remains to be seen whether Torra will respect the Supreme Court ruling and leave his post as premier. There is also uncertainty over how political parties and the Catalan independence movement will react to the decision, and whether it will lead to street protests.

This is the first time the Spanish Supreme Court has barred an acting Catalan premier from office. Although Spain’s top court did the same to former Catalan premier Artur Mas for organizing the unauthorized referendum on Catalan independence of November 9, 2014, at the time of the ruling Mas was no longer in power.

The Supreme Court rejected Torra’s appeal based on the precedents set in the case against Mas, as well as former deputy Francesc Homs, who was also barred from public office for his involvement in the 2014 referendum. Torra also freely admitted during the trial that he had disobeyed the JEC’s orders.

Quim Torra became regional premier in May 2018 after his predecessor, Carles Puigdemont, was ousted from office under Article 155 of the Constitution, which was activated by the Spanish government in the wake of the 2017 illegal referendum on independence and subsequent unilateral declaration of independence passed by the Catalan regional government. Torra, who is a lawyer by trade, was elected as a regional deputy in 2017 as an independent candidate for the pro-independence Together for Catalonia (JxCat)bloc.

What happens next

The Supreme Court sentence will involve a provisional handover of the premiership until elections are held. These will not take place until at least four months have passed, on January 31 or February 7, but until then several processes will have to be met.

The deputy premier of Catalonia, Pere Aragonès, will replace Torra under the regional government’s statutes. Once Torra has been removed, the Catalan government will meet to approve a decree appointing Aragonès to the role. Aragonès’s powers will be limited however, and he will not, for example, be able to appoint or dismiss regional ministers, nor will he be able to call elections.

Once Aragonès has been appointed in the role, it will fall to the parliamentary speaker, Roger Torrent, to speak to all of the groups in the parliament and propose a new candidate. The law sets out a 10-day period for this. It is expected that he will announce that it is impossible to choose a candidate and this will serve to start the clock for regional elections to be held.

The head of the opposition in the parliament, Ciudadanos leader Carlos Carrizosa, has called on the Popular Party (PP), the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) and the other groups to join forces and present an alternative candidate. This initiative is unlikely to prosper, however, due to the lack of support of smaller groups, and pro-independence forces have also stated that they will also not propose a candidate to replace Torra.

The date for regional elections will depend on when Torrent announces that a new candidate cannot be found. No parliamentary sessions are scheduled until October 7, but one could be held before. Once two months have passed without a new candidate being voted in, parliament will automatically be dissolved. Under this scenario, Pere Aragonès will be able to call elections despite still being acting premier. The vote would take place 54 days after the publication of the decree in the official regional gazette, according to Spanish electoral law – 40 years after being reestablished, the regional government has still not passed a Catalan electoral law.

Additional reporting by Pere Ríos.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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