MADRID—Politics is normally decided at the ballot box in modern democracies but, in Spain, it’s been events in the courtroom that have proved decisive.
Within a year, two governments have been brought down by two very different trials.
Last week, the minority Socialist government collapsed because their partners, two Catalan separatist parties, voted against the national budget. That forced Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, to call a snap election on April 28.
The Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and Catalan European Democratic Party, who have 17 legislators (MP) between them in the 350-seat Spanish Parliament, voted against the budget because a few miles away, on the other side of Madrid, leading members of these groupings were appearing before the Supreme Court.
Twelve Catalan politicians and civil activists stand accused of rebellion, sedition, misuse of public money, and disobedience over their roles in an illegal independence referendum and a failed secession declaration in 2017 that has polarized Spanish society.
In what has been hailed as the most important trial since Spain returned to democracy in 1978, the accused stand to go to prison for up to 25 years. They deny all the charges.
With unfortunate timing for Sánchez, the court case started the day before the vote on the budget.
Separatist MPs outside the court said they couldn’t side with the Spanish government while their colleagues were facing trial. Sánchez insisted he couldn’t interfere in the case, as the judiciary is independent from the government.
In June, Sánchez came to power through an unprecedented vote of no confidence, when the previous conservative government was linked to a major corruption case.
In that case, it was Catalan secessionists siding with Sánchez, who ousted the then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
As the trial of the Catalans rumbles on for the next three months, it will coincide with the general election and play an important role in how Spaniards vote.
The Catalan independence movement insists everything in Spanish politics revolves around resolving the country’s worst crisis for decades.
“We made Pedro Sánchez prime minister as a result of the no-confidence vote for the exact same reasons that we have had to maintain our position (against) his budget bill,” said Eduard Pujol, a leading member of Catalonia’s secessionist regional government. “You cannot govern Spain without listening to Catalonia.”
Separatists forces showed their strength on the weekend as about 200,000 protesters marched through Barcelona to demand a not-guilty verdict for 12 of their leaders.
While they claim that Catalonia has a right to self-determination, successive Spanish governments have said any vote on independence requires the Spanish parliament to change the constitution.
A succession of polls has pointed to the Socialists winning the most votes at the general election, but not enough to form a government. This could mean that the secessionists could wield power again over any future Socialist government.
The same polls show the right could form a coalition between the center-right Popular Party (PP) and Citizens with the help of Vox, a right-wing party which staged a dramatic breakthrough in December, winning 12 seats in regional elections in Andalusia. Should it repeat its victory in April, it means the right-wing has finally established a toehold in power for the first time in decades.
Pablo Casado, the leader of the PP, has promised to take a hard-line on Catalonia, attacking Sánchez’s policy of trying to ease tensions by opening talks with the pro-independence authorities in Barcelona.
After the failed declaration of independence in 2017, Madrid sacked the Catalan government and brought in direct rule.
If elected in April, Casado has vowed to bring back indefinite direct rule.
“The constitution and direct rule are not repressions, they are liberty, they mean the defense of Catalonia,” he told a meeting.
“The obstacle to living together is nationalism and the left-wing prefers to break Spain rather than agreeing with the PP.”
The anti-Catalonia formula worked for the right-wing parties in the Andalusian election, when they managed to end the Socialists’ 36 years in power in Spain’s south.
Currently a little less than 50 percent of the voters in Catalonia support parties whose goal is independence.
However, few doubt that a crackdown from Madrid would push more Catalans into the separatist camp.