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. Continue reading

Not one step backwards (no surrender)

In the Bruce Springsteen song “No Surrender” we are reminded of it; from the same humility but also determination, we sing together to neither go backwards nor surrender.

We are conscious that it would be the retreat and surrender of future generations, and we don’t have that right.

MHP Carles Puigdemont i Casamajó

With those words, spoken whilst still awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings in Germany, the former President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, implored supporters of independence that there can be no retreat from the progress made so far.

The Catalan Government was forcibly removed from office immediately after the independence referendum and subsequent declaration of independence last October. Six members of that Government are now in prison awaiting trial and a further five are in self-imposed exile. They are:

  • Oriol Junqueras – Vice President and Minister of Economy and Finance
    In prison since 2 November 2017
  • Joaquim Forn – Minister of the Interior
    In prison since 2 November 2017
  • Dolors Bassa – Minister of Social Welfare, Employment and Family
    In prison since 23 March 2018, previously in prison between 2 November 2017 and 4 December 2017
  • Raül Romeva – Minister of Foreign Affairs, Institutional Relations, and Transparency
    In prison since 23 March 2018, previously in prison between 2 November 2017 and 4 December 2017
  • Josep Rull – Minister of Planning and Sustainability
    In prison since 23 March 2018, previously in prison between 2 November 2017 and 4 December 2017
  • Jordi Turull – Minister of Presidency and Spokesperson of the Government
    In prison since 23 March 2018, previously in prison between 2 November 2017 and 4 December 2017
  • Carles Puigdemont – President
    In exile since 30 October 2017
  • Antoni Comín – Minister of Health
    In exile since 30 October 2017
  • Meritxell Serret – Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Food
    In exile since 30 October 2017
  • Lluís Puig – Minister of Culture
    In exile since 30 October 2017
  • Clara Ponsatí – Minister of Education
    In exile since 30 October 2017

Other politicians and civil society leaders are also in prison or self-imposed exile (or on bail awaiting trial) for their role in the referendum. These include:

  • Jordi Cuixart – President of Òmnium Cultural
    In prison since 16 October 2017
  • Jordi Sànchez – President of the Catalan National Assembly
    In prison since 16 October 2017
  • Carme Forcadell – President of the Parliament of Catalonia
    In prison since 23 March 2018, previously in prison between 9 November 2017 and 10 November 2017
  • Meritxell Borràs – Minister of Governance, Public Administration and Housing
    Previously in prison between 2 November 2017 and 4 December 2017
  • Marta Rovira – General Secretary of the Republican Left of Catalonia
    In exile since 23 March 2018

In recognition of these political prisoners and exiles, a group of supportive Catalan singers and songwriters, organised by director Hèctor Suñol, performed a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender”, with lyrics powerfully reminding Catalans that, despite everything that has happened, they should not lose faith.

Starting in April, Suñol crowdfunded some €5,000 for the project, which was released on 13 July. The video includes archive footage of the political prisoners and exiles and the police violence against voters on the day of the referendum. It starts with a dedication from Carles Puigdemont (quoted above).

The video is, above all, a reminder that, whatever obstacles are placed in the way, democracy and the will of the people will, ultimately, prevail.

Continue reading

We should be defending the fundamental rights of the people of Catalonia

An illegal vote. State police censoring political websites. Paramilitary police using violence against peaceful protesters. Calls from Amnesty International to release imprisoned political campaigners. The right-wing preparing to seize control of a democratically-elected government.

You might think that I’m talking about a backward dictatorship in a far-flung corner of the world. Rather depressingly, I’m not. Instead, these events are happening right now in one of our fellow EU countries.

By now, I’m sure most of you are aware of events in Catalonia. You may not be aware that this is not a sudden constitutional crisis, but the culmination of centuries of repression from Madrid and, more recently, a failure of the right-wing national government to engage in meaningful dialogue with the wealthy north-east region’s autonomous government.

Spain’s transition from the brutal dictatorship of General Franco to democracy has often been admired by foreign observers. 40 years on from the horrors of Franco’s Spain, the country is now regarded as a respected liberal democracy.

Let me be frank and shatter those illusions for you:

There is nothing liberal about national leaders refusing to engage with political problems (instead passing that responsibility to the courts and ensuring that, rather than progress reflecting changes to the political reality, the status quo is maintained at all costs).

There is nothing democratic about sending riot police in to beat peaceful demonstrators and elderly citizens to stop them from exercising the most fundamental democratic right: the right to vote.

Of course, Madrid is correct in asserting that the referendum on 1 October was illegal (well, contrary to the nation’s constitution), but instead of negotiating a legal referendum in which the “no” camp would likely have won (whilst opinion on independence is almost evenly split, official polls commissioned by the Catalan government suggest a small majority for “no”), they have acted with all the brutality of the European dictatorships of old.

Instead of immediately declaring independence on the strength of the referendum result, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont suspended that declaration and called for dialogue with Spain. As expected, Madrid refused. After all, why would they accept dialogue now, when they had refused 18 times in the past.

Now, Mariano Rajoyís government are preparing to invoke Article 155 of the constitution – allowing them to take control of the democratically-elected regional government. If they do, the regional government will immediately declare independence.

It is a frightening stand-off which, on its present trajectory, will not end well.

As liberals, we should be championing the Catalans’ freedom to protest peacefully, free from fear of arrest, censorship or police violence. As democrats, we should be condemning the use of courts to solve political problems, and calling for Madrid to enter the meaningful dialogue Barcelona is calling for.

It is not our place to dictate whether Catalonia becomes independent or not – clearly that is their decision alone. But as Liberal Democrats and Europeans, we should be unequivocal in our condemnation of the Spanish government’s iron-fisted approach and support of the Catalans’ fundamental democratic and human rights.

This post was originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice.