The inauguration of parliament in Madrid won’t be the sort of festive, civilised, auspicious event that marks the start of a new political chapter, as you would expect from the convening of a new legislature in a democracy. The exceptional nature of the political moment has become the norm and the Spanish parliament’s inaugural session will feature a sinister element that debases the quality of Spanish democracy. On Monday Oriol Junqueras, Josep Rull, Jordi Turull and Jordi Sànchez will be driven to Madrid from the prison where they have been held for over one year in order to collect their parliamentary credentials. Day in and day out, their trial has exposed that the charges brought against them have the sole purpose of removing them from the public arena for good. Despite the State’s pressure, the tenacity of Catalonia’s pro-independence voters and the bare minimum democratic standards have turned the secessionist political prisoners into players at the start of the new term in Madrid.
The new MPs are expected to swear their allegiance to the Spanish Constitution and the opposition has already warned any lawmakers who might be inclined to resort to a “creative” oath: PP leader Pablo Casado has urged everyone to show respect for the head of State, the Spanish flag and the Constitution. A democracy is hardly robust when dissenters who challenge the status quo at the polls pose such a major threat that keeping them in check justifies weakening that very democracy.
The arrival of the Catalan political prisoners in parliament will make waves politically and in media. A handshake or a look exchanged between those in attendance will lead to no end of interpretations, considering how odd the current situation is. Basic relationships will need mending. By merely walking into the chamber, those who have stayed true to their peaceful, democratic, political goals from a prison cell will be showing their dignity and tenacity.
With the bipartisan paradigm in its death throes, the Spanish political system is bound to learn —probably the hard way— how to dialogue, negotiate, compromise and make a deal with one’s opponent. However, aversion to compromise has been historically very strong and it still remains that way today.
The new Parliament’s induction session will provide clues as to whether PM Pedro Sánchez intends to tackle the greatest problem facing Spain today or he chooses to continue dodging the issue with gestures —largely devoid of any significance— that merely serve to perpetuate the current morass. For now the choice of two Catalans to preside over Spain’s Congress and Senate might be an internal message aimed at the PSOE and the percentage of Catalans whose faith in the ever-unfulfilled dream of a federal Spain might be renewed. In contrast, it means nothing to the millions of pro-independence voters who shun the grand speeches and are waiting to hear the specifics that will allow talks to be held and a referendum to be agreed upon. Half of the Catalan population has ceased to believe in the possibility of leading or regenerating Spain.
In the Catalan parliament, three of the JxCat representatives who remain in jail (Sànchez, Rull and Turull) have given up their seat in order to become lawmakers in Madrid. This means that the pro-independence groups have regained their majority in the chamber, now that the MPs who had refused to be “replaced” or “suspended” after the elections of December 21 have stepped down. Mathematically, though, the CUP is still the kingmaker, and the far-left group has made it clear, from the start of this term, that it does not share the strategy espoused by ERC and JxCat.
Rebuilding a majority will be key to putting together a response to the trial’s verdict. This is now largely dependent on the internal power balance within the pro-independence bloc —where very diverging strategic views coexist— that will arise from the elections, and who will emerge the leader. In today’s interview with this newspaper, president Puigdemont mentions communication difficulties that prevent an interpretation of the events in October 20177 that can be shared by Catalonia’s independence leaders and would facilitate devising a joint strategy. But the political parties’ internal process, as expressed by their own decision-making bodies, has been very different in ERC versus the post-CDC space, with the latter’s attempts at rebuilding their project being contingent on their election results.
Oriol Junqueras will go to the Spanish parliament, but he is hoping to be elected MEP, as is Carles Puigdemont. In both cases there are reasonable doubts that they will ever be able to take their seat in the European chamber, but every vote counts when it comes to bullet-proofing them in the European arena, a scene that quietly shields them from Spain’s worst totalitarian temptations. Even if the battle fought by the independence leaders to assert their rights in Europe is won, there will still be no guarantee that Europe will lift a finger for them. However, it will get in the way of Spain’s efforts to come across as an immaculate democracy, which were already let down by the crackdown on October 1, 2017.