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Status anxiety

Who is the current president of the Catalan government? Up until fairly recently, there was a perfectly clear answer to that question, namely - head of the centre-right 'Together for Catalonia' party (JxCat) Quim Torra. But this week, after the region's parliament decided to uphold a provisional ruling by the Spanish Supreme Court that strips Torra of his role as a regional MP, the answer is not so clear.

Although Torra's alleged "offence" was innocuous in itself (he failed to remove pro-independence banners from Barcelona's streets during electoral campaigning last March), his position as Catalan president has become untenable. A leader can't lead if there's legitimate doubt over whether he or she actually is a leader.

The ambiguity surrounding Torra's status is mainly owed to the fact that several institutions have been or are still involved in the legal process, from the Catalan High Court and Spain's National Electoral Board (which instructed Torra to take down the banners in March 2019) to the Spanish Supreme Court and, most recently, the Catalan parliament. Bizarrely, the latter's decision to uphold the Supreme Court's ruling doesn't necessarily mean that Torra has to step down as Catalan president. According to the country's highest court, which has yet to give its definitive ruling on Torra's appeal, that's up to the Catalan parliament.

Yet the reaction of the regional congress to Torra's defiant speech this week - in which he refused to give up his seat and announced a regional election, likely to be held in the spring - shows a crippling lack of unity, especially within the pro-independence coalition government. Last weekend, meetings between the Catalan Republican Left, JxCat and other, smaller, pro-independence groups that support their coalition, failed to result in agreement about how to proceed. The opposition, in the form of the conservative Popular Party and centrist Ciudadanos, has already stated that it no longer recognises Torra as the president of Catalonia.

It is unfortunate that, in a supposedly healthy democracy, a politician can be penalised for failing to remove street banners expressing a political ideology. However, the resulting confusion over Torra's status has seriously weakened his claim to power in Catalonia. He's right to call a snap election to try to restore unity, but it's uncertain whether pro-independence parties will be victorious again: recent polls show that around 43.7% of Catalans want the region to be an independent state, down from 48.7% in October 2017, when the Catalan parliament held an illegal referendum on secession.

It's starting to look like Torra will be yet another casualty of what his predecessor Carles Puigdemont called the "electric chair" of the Catalan presidency, as indeed was Puigdemont's predecessor Artur Mas. Given the uncertainty surrounding Torra's future, perhaps it's time for the Catalan parliament to find someone else who's willing to be strapped in.