Spanish Judge Orders Arrests of Catalan Independence Leadership
A Spanish judge has detained eight former Catalan ministers and issued arrest warrants for Catalan leader Carles Puidgemont and his cabinet. Protesters have taken to the streets to demand their release. Professor Sebastiaan Faber has more from Madrid
Greg Wilpert: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert joining you from Quito, Ecuador. A judge in Madrid, Spain ordered arrest of former members of the Catalan regional government on Thursday. Catalan independence supporters immediately took to the streets to demand their release, calling them political prisoners. Additionally, a Spanish prosecutor has asked for international arrest warrants for four more regional officials including Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who currently are in Belgium. The arrest warrants were issued in response to the Catalan government’s declaration of independence last week to which the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy responded by taking over the regional government and convoking new parliamentary elections in Catalonia for December 21st.
Joining me to analyze the most recent developments in Spain is Sebastiaan Faber. Sebastiaan is a professor of Hispanic studies at Oberlin College, and author of the forthcoming book, Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War. He joins us from Madrid, Spain.
S. Faber: Glad to be here.
Greg Wilpert: As I mentioned in my introduction, eight members of the regional cabinet are imprisoned at the moment, including its vice president Oriol Junqueras and one cabinet member is out on bail. Meanwhile, thousands of supporters of independence took to the streets again. How are people responding in Catalonia and then the rest of Spain to these developments? Are they angry, resigned or what? What’s going on?
S. Faber: The supporters of the independence movement are very angry, but more broadly, everybody who has said and were stopped that Madrid’s way of handling the situation was the wrong one is extremely angry. The reactions here in Madrid are people throwing up their hands saying this is a disaster; this should have never happened. The Madrid government is defending this situation by saying, “Hey, these are the courts. The courts are independent, and if the judge and an independent judge decides to put these people in prison because she believes that the charges against them hold water, and she believes that not putting them in prison risks them fleeing or destroying evidence, which are the arguments that are being put forth. The government is saying, “Hey, that’s the judge’s call.”
But there are at least three ways in which this is a very questionable decision. One is that it’s not clear at all, in fact, it’s quite unclear, that the National Criminal Courts to which the judge belongs that put these people in prison, that that’s the right court to handle these charges. The people, the cabinet members and the vice president, are being charged of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of funds. The act of rebellion, for example, there’s jurisprudence that says explicitly that the National Criminal Court is not the one dealing with acts of rebellion, for example. The first real question is – Is this even the right court?
Secondly, there’s a broad doubt about judicial independence in Spain, especially at the national level. Third, it’s entirely unclear whether the charge rebellion, specifically, and it was filed by the Attorney General and confirmed by the judge, makes any sense at all. By Spanish legal code, rebellion has to include some measure of violence. Anybody who’s been watching the independence movement in Catalonia can say so many things about it but not that it has been violent.
Greg Wilpert: What’s next now? Will Puigdemont and the remaining members of his cabinet surrender and go to prison? If so, how likely is it that they would have be convicted for rebellion? You mentioned it’s the wrong type of court. I mean, is this court where they’re currently being judged, would it be more likely to hand down a sentence, the maximum sentence of 30 years, or would they have better chances in the proper court that you mentioned?
S. Faber: I don’t know what the judge will eventually decide. I think for this moment, this particular moment we’re a month and a half away from these elections that have been called for December 21st, this decision to put them in prison for now pending their actual trial, is completely poisoning what was already, basically, a poisoned atmosphere leading up to these elections, which were called after all by the central government after it had overtaken and revoked the self-government of Catalonia. To your question about Puigdemont and the other cabinet members in Brussels, it’s really up to a Belgian court to decide whether they should be extradited to Spain. One of the theories circulating about Puigdemont and his cabinet members fleeing or moving to Brussels is on one hand, they’re internationalizing the conflicts. They’re fleeing to what is basically the capital of the European Union. But they’re also slowing down the process, because more hoops have to be jumped through by the different courts to get them into Madrid to be questioned by the court in Madrid.
Greg Wilpert: And so turning to the elections you mentioned, Prime Minister Rajoy had called for them to be held on December 21st. From what I’ve heard, the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, has said that he would respect these elections, which seems a bit surprising perhaps. First, what is the makeup of the current parliament? And secondly, how likely is that a new election would change the balance of forces in that regional parliament?
S. Faber: The current makeup of the parliament is such that the parties that run on a pro-independence program, as part of a coalition call together for yes or separately, which is the case of the far-left CUP party, those parties hold the majority of seats, actually the majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, even though at the last elections in 2015, they did not quite win the majority of the popular vote. If elections were held, normally on December 21st, polls indicate that the same proportion may well repeat itself, or the parties in favor of independence may be able to increase their representation. Decisions like the ones we see coming down today are so polarizing and mobilizing in Catalonia that that’s now unlikely that the support for pro-independence parties will increase.
There’s a way in which the elections for December 21st, which in Madrid and some others are justified as a reset, to start over again, to bring the system back to a normal functioning, may end up repeating the exact same problem. Interestingly, in the justification, the decision that was published today by the court, the decision by which the vice president and the cabinet members were sent to prison, the court basically goes back, the judge goes back to the initial electoral program with which the parties presented themselves to the elections as one of the indicators of their guilt of trying to secede from Spain and that the attempt of secessionist is construed as anti-constitutional, as illegal, and as an act of rebellion.
Greg Wilpert: As a turning to a little more back in terms of how did this all come about, Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras had an op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday. One of the things that he wrote was that Catalans are so interested in independence because the central government of Spain has been overturning one initiative from Catalonia after the other. He wrote, let me just read a section, he said, “The Spanish government has handed down arbitrary and capricious decisions. The Constitutional Court has suspended every one of the initiatives of the Catalan government, whether the issues involve gender equality, energy, the economy, everything has been cut down at the behest of the Popular Party government in Madrid.” This argument sounds like this conflict also has something to do with the left/right political conflict. Would you say is that a fair assessment? In other words, the government of Catalonia has been trying to push through more progressive measures that the central government, which is conservative, wouldn’t allow?
S. Faber: What Junqueras writes is true. I think it’d be a stretch to argue that the pro-independence movement is itself a progressive movement. The pro-independence movement is very mixed politically. It has a progressive content for sure, a progressive string, as well as a fairly radical string. But it also has a very conservative string. I think what Junqueras was trying to do in that piece in the Times was in part to make it seem as if this is definitely the struggle of a progressive movement against the repressive central government. But it’s not in fact the case.
I think a more sophisticate reading of the situation would say that both a big chunk of the pro-independence movement and the government in Madrid are basically resisting change, so there’s a way in which the conservative party in Catalonia has tried to rally the pro-independence energies and frustration with the central government of Madrid has tried to challenge those discontempts in part for its own political survival. There is a curious way in which Puigdemont and Junqueras are now seeing as champions of progressive causes and presenting these champions of progressive causes when it was their parties, in part, at least this is very much true for Puigdemont, who in the way helped the 2008-2009 recession push through harsh austerity measures and has consistently overt always in terms of its political priorities, privilege, order and business and help erode social, services, social healthcare, etc. and education.
The attempts to present this conflict as the conflict between a progressive movement and a repressive government is not quite the whole picture.
Greg Wilpert: Okay. In an early interview that we had with you last week, I think, you mentioned that a more likely scenario out of this impasse between Catalonia and the central government in Spain would be via new elections for Spain’s central government. Just how stable is the Rajoy government at the moment? He and his allies currently actually have minority in parliament, but the Socialist Party abstained during the vote for Prime Minister last year and allowed Rajoy to win. Could this crisis, in other words, cause Rajoy to fall because he doesn’t have a majority?
S. Faber: I would say the crisis has strengthened his position. Maybe his most important crew is most important to win through this whole process has been the fact that the Socialist Party, which is still the largest opposition party, has completely buckled to the pressure that the Partido Popular, the Popular Party and Rajoy’s party has a plight to it in the framework of this crisis. For example, when last Friday, the Spanish Senate voted to revoke Catalonia’s self-government, invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. It had the fullest support of the Socialist Party.
There’s a way in which Rajoy has very smartly, I guess politically, been able to take advantage of this crisis to drive a stake in the heart of the opposition or a wedge dividing the opposition. The second largest opposition party in Spain is Podemos. Podemos has not been in favor of invoking Article 155, and has, from the beginning, defended an official binding referendum in Catalonia about [inaudible 00:12:20] to come out of this crisis. But the conflict has managed to further divide the Socialist Party from Podemos and making it even less likely that they will ever come together under current conditions in the Spanish parliament to form a majority government that would take the place of the minority government that Rajoy is currently in charge of.
Greg Wilpert: Okay. We’ll continue to keep an eye on the developments there. I was joined by Sebastiaan Faber. Sebastiaan is a professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College. He joined us from Madrid, Spain. Thanks again, Sebastiaan, for talking to us about this.
S. Faber: Absolutely.
Greg Wilpert: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.