Ciudadanos versus freedom of expression: the story of #RiveraQuitameEste

On Wednesday, the leader of the centre-right Ciudadanos party took to Barcelona to remove yellow ribbons from the streets. The social media response became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter. This is why.

Ciudadanos (in English, Citizens, or simply Cs) is a party which presents itself as the party of the Spanish political centre, a more progressive alternative to the established Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP). In Europe, it sits in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group with the UK’s Liberal Democrats and, ironically, their ideological opposites in Catalonia, the Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català, (Catalan European Democratic Party, PDeCAT).

It’s liberal credentials have been questioned, however, by analysis of the party’s policies. Originally designating itself as a centre-left party and, more recently, centrist, analysts have variously described Cs as a centre-right or even right-wing party. For the purposes of this article, I will, where necessary, use the term “centre-right”, whilst acknowledging that a precise location on the political spectrum is a matter for intense debate.

Cs was born in Catalonia in 2006, originally in response to Catalan nationalism, among other social issues, but soon became a significant force in Spanish politics. They currently have 32 of the 350 seats in the national parliament, the Congress of Deputies, after winning 13.1% of votes in 2016, and sought to use their influence in a failed attempt to oppose the confidence vote against Mariano Rajoy and his PP government in June.

Whilst they are the fourth largest party nationally, in the elections to the Catalan Parliament in December they topped the poll, winning 36 of the 135 seats and 25.4% of the popular vote. However, they still sit as an opposition party against the votes of the Catalan nationalist groups Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia, JuntsxCat), Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia, ERC) and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (Popular Unity Candidacy, CUP), with a combined total of 70 seats – an overall majority – and 47.6% of the popular vote. The perception of winning an election but remaining in opposition clearly irritates Cs’ leader in Catalonia, Inés Arrimadas, who believes she should be the region’s president instead of Quim Torra, the compromise candidate from the JuntsxCat parliamentary group.

Torra’s election did not come easy. In fact, he was the fourth choice for president. The first was Carles Puigdemont, the leader of PDeCAT and incumbent president, until he was deposed by the Spanish government when they invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, sacking the Catalan Government and calling fresh elections. That, in turn, was in response to the Catalan Government’s decision to press ahead with a referendum on independence on 1 October 2017, which the Spanish Government and Constitutional Court ruled was illegal, and subsequent declaration of independence following a 92% vote in favour of secession (on a 43% turnout). Puigdemont’s decision to seek exile in Belgium rather than face (as he and many Catalans see it) a political prosecution caused complications and his bid was halted in favour of building a workable government in Barcelona. To many Catalans, though, he remains the legitimate president.

Next in line was Jordi Sànchez, formerly the leader of the pro-independence group Assemblea Nacional Catalana (Catalan National Assembly, ANC). Sànchez was also elected as a member of Puigdemont’s JuntsxCat coalition, formed of members of PDeCAT and independents who sought to defend the Catalan Republic. However, he has been in pre-trial custody since October, following mass (peaceful) protests against national police attempts to stop the 1 October referendum, and his bid was also halted.

Third in line was Jordi Turull, whose name was put to the Catalan Parliament on 22 March. A member of the deposed Catalan government, his candidacy drew opposition from the CUP, who abstained, meaning he failed to achieve the absolute majority (more than 50% of members of parliament) required in the first round of voting. A second round, in which a simple majority (more votes in favour than against) would have sufficed, was called for 24 March. However, he too was placed into pre-trial custody by the Spanish courts on 23 March for his own role in the 1 October referendum, and a new candidate was needed.

The vote for Turull started the countdown timer on a deadline for electing a new president. This meant that if the post was still vacant on 22 May, new elections would have to be called for 15 July. Quim Torra, an independent member of the JuntsxCat group, went before the Catalan Parliament on 12 May, but the CUP abstained again, forcing a second round of voting. On 14 May, however, Torra received a simple majority in Parliament and officially became President of Catalonia. He received 66 votes in favour against 65 votes against, with four abstentions from the CUP.

Meanwhile, Puigdemont had been arrested while passing through Germany and extradition proceedings were started. These subsequently failed, as the German Court at Schleswig-Holstein ruled the Spanish judge, Pablo Llarena, had failed to produce evidence of violence required for Germany’s equivalent of the rebellion charge Spain seeks to try Puigdemont for. (The Catalan independence movement is peaceful, and the violence on 1 October was almost exclusively carried out by the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard.) The court in Germany agreed to extradite Puigdemont under misuse of public funds charges, but that would have meant that he could only be tried on those charges once back in Spain, so Llarena refused, withdrawing the European Arrest Warrants for not only Puigdemont, but also for all other members of the deposed Catalan government in self-imposed exile.

As I mentioned in my previous post, eleven members of the deposed government are in prison awaiting trial or in self-imposed exile, joined by other politicians and civil society leaders. Pro-independence Catalans (and, indeed, many who do not want independence, but support basic democratic rights) have collectively called these politicians and activists presos polítics, or political prisoners, and continue to demand their immediate release or, in the case of those in self-imposed exile, their ability to return to their homes without fear of arrest or persecution. Indeed, since those jailed have been moved from prisons in Madrid, where they were held during the judicial investigation, to prisons in Catalonia, where they will likely remain until trial, thousands of Catalans have made regular pilgrimages to the prisons, to stand outside the perimeter and sing to those behind bars. The aim is simple: to ensure those political prisoners are continually reminded that they are not alone. Many of these pilgrimages have also included suppers beside the prisons.

The symbol which has come to represent the call “Llibertat Presos Polítics (“Freedom for Political Prisoners“) is the yellow ribbon. Catalans and supporters around the world wear them on their lapels, pin them onto their bags, include them on their social media profiles, and so on. In Catalonia, ordinary members of the public have tied yellow ribbons in towns and cities across the region, in silent and perpetual protest.

All of which provides, one hopes, sufficient context for understanding the hashtag #RiveraQuitameEsta.

As a Spanish nationalist party formed partly to see off the increased support for Catalan nationalism, Cs have consistently denied that the politicians in prison are political prisoners. That is to be expected, given everything we know about them. However, they have not simply issued such denials or sought to combat Catalan ideas with opposing arguments. Instead, their tactic appears to be to shut down the debate, to impose Spanish pride and quell Catalan nationalism by single-sided deeds rather than reasoned discourse.

One of their arguments is that the debate over Catalonia’s sovereignty is causing a social fracture through the region, and, to be fair, they may have a point. Opinion polling has almost consistently shown that the population of Catalonia is split almost 50/50 over independence. However, those same polls have also shown that a clear majority are unhappy with the region’s present constitutional status with Spain, and that as many as four-fifths support a legal, binding referendum to settle the issue of Catalan independence.

If the Catalan nationalists are causing a social fracture (which in itself is a matter for debate, but for another time) by upsetting Spanish unionists within the region, then Cs’ response and desire to crush the Catalan nationalists’ dreams by authoritarian and undemocratic means will not heal such a fracture, merely push the focal point of such pain from the Spanish unionists to the Catalan nationalists. However, this appears to be historically acceptable within Spanish politics and elements of the wider Spanish society, where the Catalans have been repeatedly oppressed by monarchs and dictatorships throughout their tumultuous history, perhaps most significantly under the four-decade reign of Francisco Franco.

Despite presenting themselves to their European “partners” as “liberals” and “democrats”, when it comes to Catalonia, at least, Cs have consistently proven themselves to be anything but. As a Liberal Democrat, it saddens me to see praise for Cs coming from members of my own party, although one wonders if those members would be quite so fawning if they knew that protests organised by Cs can – and, indeed, do – attract protesters carrying fascist and far-right banners.

It will also come as little surprise, then, to readers that Cs oppose the yellow ribbons, which, of course, is their right in a democracy. However, in a normal democratic state, the right to peaceful protest must always be protected and any party which seeks to present itself as a supporter of democracy must always call for and defend all democratic rights. Not so for Cs. Not only do they not like the yellow ribbons, they have actively encouraged their followers to remove them from Catalonia’s streets, which has led to arguments that they are seeking to suppress freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful protest. Their call to arms (and I choose my words carefully) has also led to some of their supporters donning some frankly bizarre outfits and removing the ribbons in the dead of night.

The leader of Cs, Albert Rivera, joined Arrimadas and other supporters in personally removing yellow ribbons from the streets of Alella, to the north-east of Barcelona, on Wednesday, and followed it up with a protest at the Parc de la Ciutadella, which houses the Catalan Parliament.

Whilst the removal of ribbons in Alella was mostly unremarkable, from an observer’s point of view at least, the subsequent protest was somewhat more eventful. The protest was called following an alleged attack by a Catalan nationalist against a woman who had been removing ribbons. It was, therefore, somewhat ironic that one of Cs’ supporters at the rally attacked a cameraman from Spanish channel Telemadrid, confusing the yellow tape on his camera with a yellow ribbon.

Cs’ tactic of spreading hate against Catalans and division in Catalan society has, it seems, begun to be met with opposition from other parts of Spain, even among those who oppose Catalan independence. On Thursday, Spanish journalist Cristina Fallarás tweeted a photo of a yellow ribbon, daring Rivera to “quítame este”, or “take this one from me”, while explaining that the yellow ribbon is a form of protest against the imprisonment of politicians and activists from Catalonia.

It did not take long for other users of the social media site to follow suit, using the hashtag #RiveraQuitameEste. It wasn’t just Catalans making a point, either. Tweets from other Spanish regions such as Andalusia and Madrid began to appear, with messages not in support of Catalan independence, but firmly opposing the hatred and confrontation which their authors accused Rivera and Cs of inciting.

Before long, #RiveraQuitameEste reached Twitter’s list of trending topics for Spain. But it didn’t end there, because the tweets kept coming. Some with simply the hashtag, location and a photo of a yellow ribbon, others with strong messages for Rivera and his party. Many saw the removal of yellow ribbons as an attempt to silence views with which Cs did not agree, which some specifically labelled as “fascism”. Some lamented the fact that Catalan politicians were in prison, when their supposed crimes should, in fact, have been settled at the ballot box not in a court of law. Time and again the messages reaffirmed that the authors wished Spain to remain united, including Catalonia, but some confessed that they were beginning to understand why Catalans wanted independence from Spain, in a direct attack at the manner in which Cs had approached the Catalan issue.

Still the tweets kept coming, but the message was extending beyond Spain. Spanish expats and foreign supporters of democracy from around the world started joining in, expressing solidarity with the political prisoners and the right to protest, and against the apparently oppressive response from Cs.

It took Cs ten hours to get 2,341 signatures on a petition calling for Catalonia to be free of yellow ribbons. In half that time, a single tweet from a single journalist generated 79,000 responses around the world and became a worldwide trending topic. The message continues to grow louder and stronger. The power of social media to connect and to pull people together where the likes of Rivera, Arrimadas and Cs seek to divide continues to amaze.

So there you have it, that’s the story of #RiveraQuitameEste, with a grounding of context thrown in for good measure. I wish I could conclude with a happy ending, but Cs’ tactics have not changed. Only yesterday Rivera tweeted in support of people who were removing yellow ribbons in Catalonia, while on Friday Pablo Casado, the new leader of PP, called for a change in the law to specifically ban yellow ribbons from the streets.

It seems that for some parties, far from happening 40 years ago, the Spanish transition to democracy, with all its associated democratic rights, is still a long way from fruition.

Whilst I have sought to provide as much background as possible, this article was fast approaching 2,500 words and I did not wish to make it excessively long. There will, therefore, be things which I have glossed over or omitted completely; please do not shout at me from the other end of the fibre optic! That said, if there is anything you think I have got factually incorrect, please let me know and I will happily investigate and, if necessary, amend this article accordingly.

Leave a Reply