Spain’s electoral board —officially known as the Central Electoral Board— has played a key role in the recent Spanish elections. This body is meant to ensure that election campaigns —and the polls themselves— are conducted in a manner that is fair and transparent. The campaign ahead of the Spanish election was marked by the board’s decision to ban the display of yellow ribbons in government buildings and the permission it granted the Catalan political prisoners to speak at rallies and be interviewed via a live video feed while in jail.
Gearing up for the upcoming European elections, the board rejected three candidates —Carles Puigdemont, Toni Comín and Clara Ponsatí— even before the campaign’s kickoff, a decision that has been overturn today by a local Madrid court.
But who exactly sits on Spain’s electoral board?
The Central Electoral Board was renovated during the previous term, shortly before the Spanish elections of December 21, 2017. Its current make-up shows a clear political slant, as some of the serving members were picked by the Spanish parliament, specifically by the PP, Ciudadanos, PSOE and Podemos. The PDECat’s poor election result meant they weren’t allowed to appoint anyone who might be sympathetic to the Catalan cause, unlike in previous terms.
Eight out of the board’s thirteen serving members must be Supreme Court judges, which the General Council of the Judiciary chooses by draw, including the president and the vice-president. Another five are expected to be practising law or political science and sociology professors, who are jointly appointed by the parliamentary groups. Two of the appointees currently serving on the board were picked by the PP (Carlos José Vidal Prado, a professor of constitutional law, and Lourdes Nieto López, a professor of political science, both with Spain’s Open University); a third name was chosen by PSOE (Ángela Figueruelo, a professor of constitutional law with the University of Salamanca), another by Ciudadanos (Andrés Betancor, a professor of administrative law at Pompeu Fabra University), while the fifth member was picked by Podemos (Inés Olaizola, a professor of criminal law at the University of Navarre).
These five politically appointed members display a glaring political bias, which casts doubt over the body’s impartiality. Some of them hold views that closely match those of the political party that selected them. For instance, Carlos José Vidal has no qualms about attending public events hosted by the PP, even after his appointment to the board, as he did when he took part in a PP event held in April in the Basque Country, where he unveiled a legal report commissioned by the party. The report “concluded” that the only nation endowed with the right to decide is Spain, and that self-determination could never be included in a hypothetical constitutional reform or in a regional charter.
Vidal is on record saying that the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the Catalan charter was “good”. In an interview with El Correo de Madrid, he stated that “this ruling is not a turning point by any means. The separatist narrative twists the facts. The main problem is that we should have never done away with the pre-emptive appeal on grounds of unconstitutionality” [which would have frozen the new Catalan charter until a ruling was handed down].
As a staunch supporter of Spain’s unity, after the Catalan independence referendum Vidal signed a public statement “in defence of the Spanish constitution” urging Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to abide by the law. Joining him was another board member, professor Ángela Figueruelo. Her name garnered some attention when she sued the regional president of Madrid after learning that her signature had been forged on the president’s fake Master’s degree.
Belligerent against Catalan separatism
Without a doubt, Andrés Betancor —a name that was suggested by Ciudadanos— is the most belligerent board member when it comes to Catalonia. He had worked closely with Ciudadanos before: he served on the party’s legal expert committee and has taken part in several events staged by the unionist party. He also holds some clout with Societat Civil Catalana [a unionist lobby] and has worked with them on a number of occasions. Betancor’s personal blog reflects his political views and the Catalan issue features prominently. In one article he praises the application of direct rule in Catalonia, a measure that he regards as a very valuable precedent, even if the PP resorted to it “with too much of a guilty feeling”.
Betancor is very critical of the strategy espoused by independence supporters, which he associates with ETA: “We all recall the heroes whose lives were taken by ETA. So many sacrifices were made to achieve the freedom that we enjoy today. The coup that we have had in Catalonia brings back the same memories. The dead are the same because our dream is the same: the rule of law in a democracy that stems from freedom and not from the imposition of a few”. The article he wrote after the German court of Schleswig-Holstein dismissed Spain’s extradition request on Carles Puigdemont is especially noteworthy. Betancor wrote about his disappointment: “A whole generation of Spanish jurists were raised worshipping Germany’s legal dogma”, he noted, but went on to refer to Germany’s ruling as outrageous and lacking any “legal stand”. In his closing paragraph Betancor stated that “this legal weakness exposes the sort of arrogance that borders on the supremacism that nationalists so often exhibit, including a number of German judges today”.
Lourdes Nieto, the board member chosen by the PP, is a frequent guest at events held by FAES, the conservative party’s foundation. She feels strongly about the Catalan issue and is not shy about it. In her first address as a member of the board, speaking in the Spanish parliament, Nieto asked for the national curriculum to include a new subject to educate schoolchildren politically because —she argued— “youngsters in Catalonia have been indoctrinated”. Her speech came at the end of October 2017, amid the full-on offensive by some Spanish media and parties, including the PP and Ciudadanos, which accused the independence movement of indoctrinating schoolchildren and instil in them a hatred for Spain.
The members endorsed by Podemos and the PSOE, Olaizola and Figueruelo, are not as keen to voice their opinions and they opposed the decision of the majority to remove Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí from their European slate. The president and vice-president of the board, both of whom hold more progressive views, also voted against the decision, which was ultimately upheld with the votes of the other board members.