Catalonia Calling! #16

Carles Puigdemont Becomes New Catalan President - 13/1/2016

Catalonia Calling #16 is called Carles Puigdemont Becomes New Catalan President and covers the surprising turnaround in Catalan politics this week, when at the eleventh hour Artur Mas stood aside as President in favour of outsider Carles Puigdemont.

This saved the 11th Legislature at the last minute and has allowed Junts pel Sí and the CUP to reach an agreement, which will mean that the push for independence for Catalonia can start again.

As so much has happened this week, I'll be recording another Catalonia Calling over the weekend so watch out for that.





A Surprise Announcement

Before I'd even finished uploading last Saturdays video, which was all about how time was running out, when news started to come that Artur Mas was thinking of standing down and Carles Puigdemont was in the offing as the next president of the Generalitat, along with Neus Munté and Muriel Casals. By mid afternoon, the decision was virtually confirmed.

As he was such a long shot, I didn't know much about Carles Puigdemont. He was Mayor of Girona but had only really come into the public eye when he took over the presidency of the Associació de Municipis per l'Independència, the Association of Pro-Independence Municipalities, from Josep Maria Vila d'Abadal in July 2015.

At a press conference in the Palau de la Generalitat that evening, Artur Mas officially announced that he would be standing aside and Carles Puigdemont would be taking his place. He was doing this in return for an agreement on stable government from the CUP, in which the far left party agreed not to vote against Junts pel Sí, that two of its deputies would resign and it would recognise that it had taken a belligerant attitutude in the negotiations with Junts pel Sí that might have ended up damaging the Catalan independence process irreparably. (Click here for an English translation of the agreement)

Artur Mas also announced that there would be a plenary session of the Parliament of Catalonia on Sunday to invest Carles Puigdemont as President of the Generalitat. Midnight on Sunday night was the time limit for investing a new President before new elections would have to be called automatically.

The Investiture Debate

The investiture debate began at 5 pm in the afternoon and there were crowds outside the Parliament building in Parc de la Ciutadella. Carles Puigdemont's opening speech was competent enough. He made the appropriate noises and outlined the plan for the future government. At just under an hour, it was shorter than a typical speech from Artur Mas and was competent but not particularly inspired or inspiring. Puigdemont was obviously nervous and had had very little time to prepare.

He really came into his own, though, in his responses to the speeches made by the opposition parties. The responses were improvised and showed an acute sense of humour, which is quite a breath of fresh air after the rather stern Artur Mas. The three moments that come to mind were:

1. His reply to Inés Arrimadas' quoting of his use of the expression "Expel the invaders" on Twitter. Arrimades had taken the tweet out of context and implied that he was referring to Spain, when in fact he was talking about the bombing of Barcelona by Mussolini's air force during the Spanish Civil War. He brought applause from Junts pel Sí and the CUP when he finished by saying that fascism was unacceptable and should always be fought against.

2. When Miguel Iceta asked him if he was in favour of independence for Catalonia, with good-humoured sarcasm, he reminded the PSC leader that as Mayor of Girona he was facing legal proceeding because his council had openly supported the Declaration of the Beginning of the Independence Process.

3. In his response to Anna Gabriel of the CUP, whose tone had been slightly more belligerant than expected, he pointed out that although there were many differences between the CUP and Junts pel Sí in policies and, in particular, in the language they used to express their ideas, the two parties could work together to form a stable government because they had common objectives. What's more, he said, he and Anna Gabriel shared the same haircut, which brought a big laugh from the stern feminist and her colleagues.

In the final vote, 8 of the CUP voted in favour and two abstained so with the 62 votes of Junts pel Sí, Carles Puigdemont was invested 10th President of the Generalitat by 70 votes in favour, 62 against and 2 abstentions. There were congratulations all round and as the camera pannecout, I was amazed to see that Carles Puigdemont's wife was Marcela Topor.

It would be ridiculous to describe Marcela as anything more than an acquaintance but she interviewed me for the Catalan Connections programme on PuntAvui TV and we also coincided on a roundtable made up of well-integrated foreigners sponsored by El PuntAvui newspaper and Banc Sabadell, I think. I know it's namedropping but you have to admit that it's uite cool to be on speaking terms with Catalonia's new First Lady.

Carles Puigdemont

Along with many others, I think Carles Puigdemont is a great choice. He's got a background in journalism and is an excellent communicator, with a sense of humour to boot. He speaks a number of languages very fluently, as does his wife, so he'll have no problem dealing with foreign media.

As Mayor of Girona he has experience of running a decent-sized administration. What's more being from Girona, Puigdemont offers a solid appeal to deep heart Catalonia without having to compromise on modernity.

The fact that he's come out of the blue means he's got very little backstory and is starting with a clean slate. What's more the backstory he's got is strongly associated with the independence movement.

The key for me, though, is the fact that he is president of the Associació de Municipis per l'Independència. The AMI is at least as important as the ANC but it works on more of an institutional level. Having said that, the AMI was behind the popular consultations in favour of independence as far back as 2011. The important point, though, is that with e-president of the ANC now speaker of the Catalan Parliament and the president of AMI now president of the Generalitat, civil society has really taken control of the process. This is how it should be.

On the Monday, following his investiture, Puigdemont responded very forcefully to Spanish President Mariano Rajoy's threats to shut down the Catalan independence process by saying that Rajoy was only acting President of Spain and that he would prefer to discuss the issue of Catalan independence with the president of the incoming government, if that ever happened.

Artur Mas's Gesture

At the end of last week's episode, I suggested that Mas standing aside was the best option, even though I didn't epect him to do so. I also said that the gesture would turn him into a national hero and that process had begun even before he'd finished the speech announcing that he was standing aside.

For admirers of Mas, like me, it has shown what we've been saying all along: That Mas was completely trustworthy and would put Catalonia before self-interest. However, had he not done so, he and Convergència would have been finished politically. So the gesture made complete sense as elections in March were in nobody's interest.

Mas said in his speech that he would either be President or ex-President so will not be taking a ministerial position. I also expect him to resign as an MP in Catalan Parliament because his presence in the house would make it difficult for Puigdemont to have full authority. I'm sure he will always be ready when called upon and he will be of more use working behind the scenes.

Mas's main job now is to refound Convergència or as he puts it "the political space that the party occupies". We have no idea what the new party will be called yet but it's pretty clear that the Catalan Republic will need a centre-right party that appeals to the middle-classes and the business community.

In fact, Mas's gesture was such an election booster that the might be able to save the name, despite its associations with Pujol and corruption. So expect Mas to be travelling the country talking to activists and supporters, spotting new talent and lifting carpets and getting into corners to make sure there are no corruption scandals in the making.

He hasn't counted out the possibility of standing again in 18 months time and becoming the first president of the new Republic of Catalonia. He always said that he would stand aside once the independence process was over but as he's left earlier than expect, he now has every right to stand again. To put it simply, the gesture has immediately elevated Artur Mas to the role of 'Father of the Nation' so I'm certain we haven't seen the last of him.

The CUP

Three months of deadlock have left the CUP pretty bruised and battered, particularly internally, with the pro-independence and trotskyist tendencies involved in a battle for control of the party. However, don't expect the CUP to go anywhere. The media attention will be good for them in the long run and their very real rebelliousness has a strong appeal to a certain kind of voter.

Josep Manel Busqueta and Julià de Jodar will be leaving their seats, Ramon Usall had already resigned for personal reasons and it looks like main candidate Antonio Baños will be standing down too so there will soon be four new CUP faces in Parliament. In the agreement with Junts pel Sí, they've been forced to recognise the error of their ways but I expect them to be back behaving belligerantly pretty soon.

I also think that they can be very proud of the social policies included in the annex to the declaration of the beginning of the independence process. They have definitely succeeded in taking the Junts pel Sí programme further to the left that the conservative wing of the coalition would like. I also think that the social policies will build a bridge out to Catalunya Sí que es Pot and, with Mas now no longer the stumbling block, the Podemos franchise will find it very difficult voting against these measures.

Depending on what happens in Spain, CSQEP could well end up moving much closer to the independence camp. However, suffice to say, that the voice of the left has far from been silenced by the agreement.

Puigdemont and Spain

As I mentioned earlier, even before Carles Puigdemont's investiture ceremony was over, Spanish president Mariano Rajoy made a statement to the press, which predictably revolved around the idea that the Partido Popular would continue defending Spain against the independentist threat and that any illegalities would be punished. Puigdemont responded by saying that Rajoy was just the acting president and that he was interested in hearing the opinion of the incoming Spanish president if it were ever decided who that would be.

On Tuesday morning, as President of the Parliament of Catalonia, Carme Forcadell expected to communicate personally to King Felipe VI the fact that Carles Puigdemont was new President. However, she received a message saying that she didn't need to come and an email would be sufficient. This broke a tradition that had been maintained since the return of democracy and showed that the Crown was obeying government orders and siding against Catalonia.

Later in the day, the Boletín Oficial del Estado, the official government communication, was released informing of the end of Artur Mas's tenure as president of the Generalitat. In the document, the words "agradeciendole los servicios prestados" (thanking him for services rendered), which are normally inclueded every time there is a change of president, were omitted breaking with another tradition.

The evening event was the ceremony in which the old President hands over to the new one. Artur Mas made a much applauded speech as did Carles Puigdemont and then it was Carme Forcadell's turn to read the oath. In the oath, the President of the Generalitat the word normally includes swearing allegiance to the King and the Constitution as follows:

"Do you swear on your conscience and your honour to faithfully fulfill the obligations of the position of president of the Generalitat of Catalonia with loyalty to the King, to the Constitution, to the Statute of Autonomy and the national institutions of Catalonia?"

However, Carme Forcadell changed the wording of the last section to "with loyalty to the will of the people of Catalonia as represented by Parliament?"

This looks like it could be the cause of the first major face off between the Catalan government under Puigdemont and the Spanish government. Central government seem to think that leaving King and Constitution means the ceremony is valid whereas the Catalans think that the ceremony, which was introduced by President Tarradellas in 1978, is merely a formality and the official mandate is given by the vote in Parliament.

The Spanish government would have a stronger argument if they hadn't changed the protocol and the King had received Forcadell and thanks to Artur Mas had been included in the BOE. However, this looks like the first of many tussles, which once the new government starts putting laws included in the declaration of the start of the independence process through Parliament is only likely to get worse.



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