ANALYSIS: Why the future of Spain's PM is being decided in a makeshift office behind bars in Catalonia

Matthew Bennett
Matthew Bennett - [email protected]
ANALYSIS: Why the future of Spain's PM is being decided in a makeshift office behind bars in Catalonia
Graffiti reading "Free Junqueras" is pictured on a road outside the Lledoners jail in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada. Photo: AFP

The new socialist government came to power in June promising dialogue and a different approach to the Catalan independence crisis but twelve months after it all went wrong, separatist leaders are making more impossible demands on Madrid, not fewer.


Oriol Junqueras, the leader of Republican Catalan Left (Esquerra, ERC), is one of nine Catalan separatist leaders in jail on remand.

He is suspected of, and will in all likelihood soon be formally accused of and stand trial for, the crimes of rebellion and the misuse of public funds, as part of a strategy the investigating judges say was designed to separate Catalonia from Spain last year and that led to an actual declaration of independence on October 27th.

The other eight are also in jail, awaiting trial, for the same combination of crimes or, in the case of those who were not part of the Catalan government, just rebellion, which carries a maximum sentence under the modern Spanish criminal code of 30 years behind bars.

Seven others, including Carles Puigdemont, are currently abroad: they insist they are “in exile”, the Supreme Court calls them “fugitives”. The rest—another nine, to make up 25 in total—are free on bail, suspected only of contempt or the misuse of public funds.

READ MORE: Catalonia independence crisis one year on

At the National High Court in Madrid, former Catalan Police chief Josep Lluis Trapero and three others are suspected of the lesser crimes of sedition—which in modern Spain is all about the obstruction of justice, riot and false imprisonment—and criminal organisation. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, though, is reportedly mulling over whether or not to increase the charge against him to rebellion as well.

In July, after the new socialist government settled down in Madrid, the prisoners were moved to jails in Catalonia as a gesture of goodwill.

El Español reported on Monday morning that Mr. Junqueras now has his own office in the psychiatric wing of Lledoners jail, is acting as the de facto First Minister of the region—in the absence of Mr. Puigdemont and the ineffectiveness of Quim Torra, the hand-picked successor—and receives many, many more visitors than ordinary inmates are allowed.

Pablo Iglesias (C) arrives at the Lledoners jail in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada to visit Catalan jailed leader Oriol Junqueras. 

One of those visitors last Friday was Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, who swore blind, as did ministers when asked, that the trip to jail had absolutely nothing to do with securing Catalan separatist votes for the minority central government’s 2019 budget. “In exchange for what?” was the obvious question.

While Mr. Iglesias was still inside, the first quote hit the newswires. “ERC will not negotiate the budget unless there is a movement with the prisoners”, Esquerra MP Joan Tardà told the TV cameras, handily waiting outside. A movement. What might that mean?

The Podemos leader came out and said his party had indeed entered into motion: “We have already moved and we are contributing to dialogue and détente.  The government knows what it has to do”. He added, in case anyone hadn’t cottoned on, that they were “in jail for doing politics and should be free”.

A budget or prisoners was, is, the demand, it seems, but the Prime Minister cannot have both.

Mr. Iglesias also spoke to Mr. Puigdemont on the phone on Sunday, again describing the separatists as “exiles” and “political prisoners”, and said that “no issue” should be off the table for talks. That is code for letting the prisoners out of jail, a binding referendum and perhaps even independence itself. So there are in fact more unrealistic demands now than there were 12 months ago.

Also note that the Catalan Parliament—in a motion tabled by Podemos—10 days ago censured King Felipe and said the monarchy should be abolished outright. The socialist central government replied the next day that it would take some as yet undefined legal action in response.

Sanchez (R) met with Catalan regional president Quim Torra (L) at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid on July 9th. Photo: AFP

The Spanish government cannot just order the prisoners released, although there is some wriggle room in terms of what it might ask the Public Prosecutor’s Office to do with the charges and, later on, after the trial, there might be talk of pardons. And Sánchez knows he cannot call a binding referendum on independence for the same reasons Rajoy couldn’t: the Constitution will not allow it, and it would be political suicide in the rest of Spain were he to attempt anything close to it. 2019 is full of elections.

So the socialist government is stuck and the Prime Minister, with just 84 MPs in Congress, is asking regional nationalists and Podemos—the same combination that won him the motion of no-confidence in May—to get him out of this fix too. He does not want to shout about it very loudly, though, in case opposition parties and the media and all of those voters are outraged about shady deals in prison with separatists and republicans and neo-marxists, just so he can stay in power for a few more months, in exchange for stomping all over the rule of law and turning Spain into a “nation of nations”, whatever that is.

Matthew Bennett is the creator of The Spain Report. You can read more of his writing on Patreon, and follow him on Twitter. Don't miss his podcast series with weekly in-depth analysis on Spain.


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