This week’s Catalan elections are key for the future of the region. The last elections held on 27 September 2015 translated into a hung Parliament with a pluralistic majority (in seats but not in votes) of independent parties that agreed on the formation of a clear pro-independence government. The independence movement, despite having promised the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in its 2015 campaign, understood that this could not be done without holding a referendum in advance.
This final referendum was scheduled for 1 October 2017. The referendum was considered by the Constitutional Court (CC) to be unconstitutional and, therefore, lacking any legal basis. Despite all of this, the Catalan government ignored the CC and continued with the preparations for said consultation. The worst omens were fulfilled, and the Spanish government responded violently against the people who went to vote at the polling stations.
Despite the work done by the Catalan authorities who worked secretly, it is easily conceivable that the consultation was lacking in certain basic democratic guarantees as evidenced by the irregularities with the non-official census; the partiality of the members of the polling stations who were volunteers and not citizens chosen after an impartial process; or evidence of voters voting more than once at different polling stations. In spite of all this, the pro-independence forces assumed the popular mandate of the referendum and proclaimed the Catalan Republic on 27 October 2017 with half of the deputies absent from their seats.
The Spanish government triggered Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution (SC). After the authorisation of the Senate, several Royal Decrees were passed to formalise the cessation of certain regional authorities, including the Prime Minister and the ministers, and the dissolution of some administrative bodies and even the Parliament of Catalonia. The competence of the Spanish government ex Article 155 SC to cease the Catalan government and dissolve Parliament calling for new elections is quite controversial from a constitutional point of view. As a result, half of the Catalan ministers (including the Deputy Prime Minister) were jailed and the other half (including the Prime Minister) escaped to Brussels to internationalise the Catalan process.
Article 155 SC is an exceptional mechanism, never applied before in the young Spanish democracy, and therefore lacking in precedent. Recently, an Appeal for Unconstitutionality has been filed and should be resolved by the CC in the following weeks or months. The cessation of the government and the dissolution of parliament will, however, be consolidated facts, as they will have developed all the legal effects despite the possibility of being considered unconstitutional. The decision of the CC is still important in the event the blockade situation persists in the future.
The elections are extraordinary as they have been called by Spanish Prime Minister instead of the Catalan Prime Minister. This electoral campaign is highly polarised, with the pro-independence candidates objecting to the invasive reaction of the Spanish government and the constitutionalist forces calling for the end of the independence process. It remains to be seen what will happen if the pro-independence forces win again, and if the Spanish government will lift the measures imposed against the Catalan institutions (or if a decision by the CC will eventually force the Spanish government to do so) or if they will perpetuate them sine die until the constitutionalist forces are able to win elections.