politics

Government-by-Skype: Catalonia Tries to Dodge Madrid Control

Updated on
  • Ousted Catalan leader seeks presidency via video conference
  • Regional parliament convenes Wednesday after December election
Carles Puigdemont Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Catalonia has seen an illegal referendum, a rebel president and a takeover by Madrid in recent months. The next twist could be government-by-Skype.

Carles Puigdemont is aiming to reclaim his post as regional president after his separatist alliance defended its majority in December’s election. The problem is, there’s a warrant out for his arrest in Spain.

After campaigning from his self-imposed exile in Brussels, 55-year-old Puigdemont now wants to run his administration from there too. As the new parliament prepares to meet for the first time Wednesday, his advisers are looking at ways for Puigdemont to take office without returning to the regional capital Barcelona.

The separatists are fighting to keep their campaign for a Catalan republic moving forward after the central government seized control of the rebel region in October and saw courts jail several top officials. Puigdemont fled the country after the parliament declared independence and has insisted he remains the legitimate leader.

“Independence parties need to keep the fantasy going a little longer as leverage,” said Veronica Fumanal, a political strategist who has run campaigns for the Socialist party and Ciudadanos. “But when you assess the daily business of government, it’s science fiction.”

Twisting the Rules

On Monday, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Catalonia will not return to self-government -- revoked under article 155 of the 1978 constitution -- until there’s a new government in place and said he’s prepared to go to court to block any attempt by Puigdemont to take office without attending the regional parliament.

“If someone wants to take charge, they have to be physically present,” he told a public meeting of party officials in Madrid. “If not, article 155 will stay in place. And that’s not because I say so, the Senate said it would remain until a new president is sworn in.”

The separatists are trying to exploit a loophole in the parliamentary rules so that Puigdemont can address the chamber via videoconference or nominate a surrogate to speak on his behalf. The regulations say that the candidate should “present his program to the chamber” before facing a confidence vote. Puigdemont argues that this doesn’t mean he has to be physically present. Legal experts are not so sure.

“While there may not be an explicit reference to being physically present, it’s implicit if you look at how a parliamentary system works,” said Argelia Queralt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Barcelona. “A president can’t carry out the duties of government on Skype or submit himself to the oversight of parliament if he’s not there.”

Majority Reclaimed

Catalan separatists won 48 percent of votes, enough to control the regional parliament

Source: Generalitat de Catalunya, Bloomberg calculations

The process begins Wednesday, when the Catalan parliament meets for the first time since its declaration of independence on Oct. 27 led Rajoy to dissolve the legislature, fire the government and revoke the region’s self-government.

Lawmakers are due first to elect the committee which controls the day-to-day working of the chamber. The separatists’ majority should mean that they continue to set the agenda -- and decide whether Puigdemont can face a confidence vote without turning up.

Separatist Tensions

The former president’s intransigence is also stirring tensions with other separatist groups. Esquerra Republicana his key ally has offered only qualified support for his plans, while the radicals of the CUP have demanded an alternative candidate rather than risk triggering new elections.

“Puigdemont is pursuing a personal agenda,” said Ignacio Molina, senior analyst at the Madrid-based Elcano think tank. “That makes it difficult to predict where we go from here and a lot will depend on whether he succeeds in imposing his will.”

(Updates with comments from prime minister from seventh paragraph.)
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