May 21, 2019 / 11:16 AM / 5 months ago

Jailed separatists and far-right make for rowdy start to Spanish parliament

MADRID (Reuters) - Jailed Catalan separatists, far-right lawmakers, a record number of women and the biggest Socialist group in years held a rowdy opening session on Tuesday of a parliament that reflected Spain’s divisions and diversity like no other in recent memory.

Acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists boosted their representation in the April 28 election after a tense campaign, but have yet to put together a working majority and say it may not happen until July.

The lower house or Congress erupted in cheers, jeers, desk slapping and defiant declarations in local languages as each of its 350 members was sworn in.

The combative atmosphere was one of many firsts for a parliament that illustrates the fragmentation of Spain’s politics and the demise of decades-old domination by the Socialists to the left and the conservative People’s Party to the right.

Much of the tension focused on the four jailed Catalan lawmakers.

They are the first to make their way to Spain’s parliament from jail, as they undergo trial over a banned independence referendum. One other jailed Catalan leader was elected to the upper house, the Senate.

As each stood to be sworn in, their words were drowned out by far-right nationalist lawmakers from the newcomer Vox party and a few from the centre-right Ciudadanos banging on their desks, while fellow separatists gave them a standing ovation.

“DEMOCRACY HUMILIATED”

Accusations of lack of respect for parliament and voters flew on all sides after the ceremony, with right-wing parties particularly angry at the presence of the jailed separatists.

“Spanish democracy was humiliated,” said Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative People’s Party.

Some pro-independence Catalan lawmakers could be heard pledging to follow through on the results of the banned referendum, which backed independence, prompting more jeers from right-wingers.

General view of the chamber during the first session of parliament following a general election in Madrid, Spain, May 21, 2019. Javier Lizon/Pool via REUTERS

Vox lawmaker Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros said they were “enemies of Spain” and called their presence a “joke” while Gabriel Rufian, from the separatist ERC party, said the presence of police monitoring the four men was a breach of rights, and that other groups had behaved liked “fascists”.

The Supreme Court had ruled that the jailed separatists could collect their papers and attend Tuesday’s opening sessions before returning to prison.

The newly elected chair of the chamber, Meritxell Batet, concluded the swearing-in ceremony by saying all should respect the diversity of the chamber. “We all represent the people but none of us on their own represents everybody,” she said.

The 24 Vox lawmakers are the first far-right bloc to sit in parliament since Francisco Franco’s dictatorship ended in the late 1970s, although one single far-right legislator sat from 1979-1982.

WOMEN LEAD THE WAY

Newcomer Vox gained 10% of the vote last month and counts among its legislators two retired generals who have signed a manifesto honouring Franco’s memory.

In the chamber, the bloc sat right behind the acting Socialist government bench, having arrived early to claim the high-profile seats, and behind them sat one of the jailed Catalan members of parliament, Oriol Junqueras.

Spain’s lower house is now Europe’s most gender-equal legislature, with 47.1% women. Nine of those represent Vox, which strongly opposes existing equality laws, saying they discriminate against men.

To the left of the Socialists are another relative upstart party in the anti-austerity Podemos (“We Can”), which hopes to strike a coalition deal with Sanchez, who has been non-committal.

Podemos’s ponytailed young leader, Pablo Iglesias, said the jeers in parliament demonstrated “a lack of manners”.

Parliament now needs to decide if the jailed Catalans’ rights as lawmakers should be suspended.

Slideshow (10 Images)

They and seven other Catalan leaders are charged with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds, which they all deny. The trial is expected to last several more months.

Sanchez proposed two Catalan Socialists as parliamentary speakers, a nod to the prominent role that the politically volatile region is likely to play during his mandate.

Batet got 175 votes in a first round on Tuesday, one short of an absolute majority, but was then elected to lead the lower house in a second round by simple majority. Her equivalent candidate for the upper house, Manuel Cruz, was also elected.

Reporting by Belen Carreno, Paul Day, Sabela Ojea, Elena Rodriguez; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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