7 takeaways from the election of a new Catalan leader
Catalans opposed to independence have hardened their position.Torra mentioned the creation of a “Council of the Republic” — a body that Puigdemont wants to lead from the Belgian town of Waterloo, if German courts allow him to — which will seek to gain international support for the independence process. The new Catalan chief also mentioned an “Assembly of Elected Officials,” an unofficial chamber of pro-independence politicians who would take charge of the more defiant actions against the Spanish government.5. In-house nation-buildingThe Catalan Cabinet will seemingly keep using a few tricks from the past to bash the Spanish government and rally support for independence.Torra said, for example, that his Cabinet will significantly raise the minimum wage in the region. Only the central government can implement such a measure but if the courts block it, it can easily be portrayed as an attack against Catalonia.The new president also said he will order an audit of the damages caused by the central government’s direct rule over the region. That means they’re likely to pin the blame on Madrid for the loss of thousands of companies that have moved their legal headquarters out of the region in recent months.On top of that, Torra’s Cabinet will retake control of Catalan public TV and radio, and be able to continue subsidizing like-minded private media. 7. The judicial cardSpain’s Supreme Court is preparing to put to trial two dozen separatist leaders and activists on charges of rebellion, disobedience and misuse of public funds during last year’s secession attempt.They include Puigdemont and his former deputy Oriol Junqueras, who’s in jail. They could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.The trials could even seal Torra’s fate as president. If, as Puigdemont suggested, regional elections are held in October when the trials will likely have begun, they could be used to channel rage against the courts at the ballot box. Also On POLITICO Catalonia elects a new leader By Diego Torres Puigdemont caught, but Rajoy is prisoner of events By Diego Torres Here are seven takeaways from Torra’s election:1. Yet more confrontation“I have decided that I’m not interested in anything other than the independence of my country and that I cannot trust anyone that doesn’t make it a priority,” Torra wrote in an opinion piece in 2009.His election shows that Puigdemont’s strategy of confrontation with the Spanish state has prevailed over the more moderate voices within the independence camp in Catalonia. That will likely mean more attacks on Spain, with the Catalans portraying it as an authoritarian state, especially when the trials of pro-independence leaders get started.One lawmaker from Puigdemont’s Catalan European Democratic Party, who didn’t want to be named, said the former leader had been asked by fellow party members to choose a more moderate candidate who could engage in dialogue with Madrid, adding that Torra is a “man for confrontation.”2. Rajoy’s nightmare won’t endThe Catalan crisis is taking its toll on the popularity of the prime minister and his Popular Party and feeding its liberal rival Ciudadanos, which many polls now put in the lead. Albert Rivera’s party is now calling for Madrid to continue with direct rule over Catalonia, an attempt to portray Rajoy as too soft on the nationalists.Rajoy repeatedly signaled in recent weeks that he wanted a new Catalan government headed by a “clean” leader — meaning one not in prison or self-imposed exile like Puigdemont, who is in Germany. Last week, Rajoy said in a TV interview he was willing to open “a process of dialogue” with the newly elected Catalan Cabinet. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy | Eitan Abramovich/AFP via Getty ImagesWhile both sides have called for dialogue, they mean different things by that. Catalan secessionists have refused to take part in a national process looking to reform the territorial structure of the country or in a conference on the financial system of the regions. Rajoy, meanwhile, refuses to engage in talks with the government in Barcelona that go beyond the framework of the country’s constitution.Some (brief) relief for Rajoy will come from the likely approval of the delayed 2018 national budget, for which he needs the support of Basque nationalists. They have refused to back the budget while Madrid has day-to-day control over Catalan affairs, which will end now that Torra has been elected.3. Puigdemont’s puppet?Torra is firmly Puigdemont’s man. The new Catalan president has little political experience and lacks a support base of his own. Supporters of both independence and unity see his election as an attempt by Puigdemont to continue to exert influence over the region.In an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa published at the weekend, Puigdemont said a new regional election could be called in October — coinciding with the expected start date of trials of separatist leaders at Spain’s Supreme Court.Torra’s position will very much depend on Puigdemont’s judicial fate. If German courts decide to send the former leader back to Spain to face trial, Torra will have a greater chance of getting into the driver’s seat on his own.4. Outsourcing disobedienceTorra outlined a defiant program of government aiming to build up “an independent state in the form of a republic,” but he seemed keen to outsource the more legally problematic elements, such as drafting a Catalan constitution, to ad hoc private organizations to be created by the separatists. MADRID — Catalan secessionists have finally managed to elect a new leader, and the region is set to remain a major headache for Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.The Spanish prime minister, who had repeatedly asked the separatists to choose a viable candidate, will have to deal with a Catalan president, Quim Torra, whom the usually soft-spoken, pro-unity Catalan Socialists have labeled a “supremacist” who “hates half the people he wants to rule over.”Torra — a hard-line independence activist chosen by former leader Carles Puigdemont — will be the head of a government with ample devolved powers, including commanding the 17,000-strong Catalan police and controlling a yearly budget of €34 billion. 6. The 50 percent threshold problemSix years of the independence process, Rajoy’s heavy-handed attempt to prevent a vote on secession, the jailing of Catalan leaders and Madrid’s move to impose direct rule over the region haven’t reaped the benefits that many had hoped for.Much to the frustration of secessionist leaders, Catalans remain divided and support for independence hasn’t passed 50 percent. In December’s election, it reached 47.5 percent — a slightly smaller share of the vote than in 2015.A pro-independence rally in Barcelona. Catalans remain divided on the issue of independence | Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty ImagesMoreover, Catalans opposed to independence have hardened their position. A majority now backs Ciudadanos, which advocates a much tougher stance against the separatists than the Socialists, which had long been the biggest unionist party in the region.However, union supporters haven’t been able to beat the separatists in elections or deprive them of their ruling majority.All this points to an increasingly painful social division within Catalonia, which is reflected in widespread social media trolling and even physical attacks on the headquarters of both unionist and pro-independence parties.Torra’s writings surely won’t help heal those wounds. He’s written of the “beasts with human form” that “are here, among us,” referring to someone who complained about the use of the Catalan language, instead of Spanish, on a Swiss Air flight.