MADRID — The Supreme Court of Spain on Monday upheld a ruling barring the separatist leader of Catalonia from public office, a decision that could renew tensions in the restive northeastern region.
The Catalan police force had put officers on high alert for possible protests ahead of the decision, which confirmed a December ruling against the separatist leader, Quim Torra, the president of the regional government of Catalonia. .
The verdict on Monday threw Catalan politics once more into turmoil. Mr. Torra is expected to be replaced in office by his deputy, Pere Aragonès, who represents a different separatist party. Mr. Torra had intended to hold an early election to shore up support for the separatist movement this year, but that plan was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic that has hit Spain particularly hard.
Mr. Torra’s case is part of a long series of clashes pitting Spain’s central government and its judiciary against Catalan leaders who favor independence. Politicians have failed for years to resolve the secessionist deadlock, and it has increasingly been left to judges to handle, while continuing to split Catalan society down the middle.
On Monday evening, Mr. Torra said that Catalonia would hold elections “in the next few months,” and called on his backers to turn the vote into a plebiscite on independence. The Spanish government urged the region to hold another election as soon as possible, to avoid a period of political limbo in Catalonia under a caretaker administration.
Mr. Torra also indicated that he would appeal the decision by Spain’s highest court to the European Court of Justice. A European court, Mr. Torra said, “is the only place where Catalan pro-independence activists, as well as the just and legitimate cause for independence, can find justice.”
The case against Mr. Torra is centered on his refusal last year to take down yellow ribbons and other signs displaying solidarity with the separatist movement, in defiance of an order by the electoral commission in Madrid. The commission had instructed that all partisan symbols should be removed from public buildings during the political campaign leading up to a Spanish election in April 2019.
The ribbons had become a way of showing support for separatist leaders, who were sentenced later in 2019 for having made an unsuccessful attempt to declare independence two years earlier.
Mr. Torra repeatedly defied the order to withdraw pro-independence symbols, and a court in Barcelona ruled in December that his refusal to clear them amounted to civil disobedience. It barred him from holding office for 18 months, prompting Mr. Torra to appeal to the Supreme Court.
On Monday, several Spanish politicians welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision against him. Inés Arrimadas, the leader of the Ciudadanos party, said that “justice has been done.”
“Public spaces belong to everybody and a political leader cannot violate the laws to flood them with separatist propaganda,” Ms. Arrimadas wrote on Twitter.
The separatist majority that controls the regional parliament selected Mr. Torra in 2018 as the leader of Catalonia. The previous office holder, Carles Puigdemont, had been ousted by the Spanish government in October 2017 over the illegal attempt to secede, and then left the country to avoid arrest and prosecution.
Since then, Mr. Puigdemont has been fighting efforts to extradite him from Belgium to stand trial for his part in the failed independence effort. Although sidelined abroad, he has continued to wield influence over Catalan politics, as well as winning a seat in the European Parliament last year.