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The Socialist lawmaker who sat flanked by the far right for seven hours

Veteran Catalan politician José Zaragoza spent the inaugural session of Congress in the midst of Vox legislators, who had occupied the seats normally used by his own party

José Zaragoza (looking at his cellphone) flanked by Vox deputies. Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (bottom left) is sat in front of the far-right party’s leader, Santiago Abascal. Ampliar foto
José Zaragoza (looking at his cellphone) flanked by Vox deputies. Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (bottom left) is sat in front of the far-right party’s leader, Santiago Abascal. EFE

A deputy-elect from the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) managed to turn a bizarre situation on its head on Tuesday, during the opening of the new session of parliament. The far-right party Vox – which, for the first time ever, has its own lawmakers in Congress – took advantage of the fact that seats are not assigned in the lower house during this opening session, and occupied the row behind where the acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, was due to sit. But José Zaragoza managed to occupy one of those spots, and stayed firmly sat there for seven hours, flanked by deputies-elect from Vox.

At around 8am on Tuesday, Zaragoza received a call from the general secretary of the Socialist group in Congress, Rafael Simancas, warning him about what was happening in the chamber. Around half-an-hour beforehand, the 24 deputies-elect from Vox had occupied the two rows of seats directly behind the front row, which had been reserved for the acting PSOE government. A group of PSOE deputies were stunned as they watched the scene unfold, and were unsure exactly of what to do.

After receiving the phone call, Zaragoza – who is a member of the Socialist leadership in parliament – headed straight down to Congress in central Madrid. “I saw a space and went for it, I did it without ostentation,” he later explained. He took advantage of a moment when Vox deputy-elect Javier Ortega Smith was distracted and standing up, out of his seat. Zaragoza sat down in the place that the party’s general secretary had left empty. And there he stayed, sat between Vox party leader Santiago Abascal and deputy-elect Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, having surprised the Vox deputies in the same way they had surprised the PSOE.

In his own words, Zaragoza took the seat “to counteract the trolling” that the far-right party was attempting, given that their move would ensure that party leader Santiago Abascal would appear in all the photos of Pedro Sánchez from the inaugural session of Congress and become the center of attention on their debut in the lower house of parliament.

During the seven hours Zaragoza found himself flanked by members of the far-right party he received a number of messages of encouragement from his colleagues

With 63% of deputies entering Congress for the first time, there were more than a few who were unaware of the situation that was playing out and even congratulated Zaragoza for the 24 seats – 10% of the vote – that Vox had taken at the April 28 general election. “I’m from the [Catalan Socialist Party] and Baix Llobregat,” the veteran Catalan politician explained with a wry smile when he finally left Congress after the opening of parliament. “I’m not one of those looking to return to the past,” he joked, in reference to the hardline policies of Vox.

Zaragoza wouldn’t budge during the marathon session in Congress, and even ended up explaining some of the customs and routines of the lower house to the Vox deputies-elect. During the seven hours he found himself flanked by members of the far-right party, he received a number of messages of encouragement from his colleagues.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal (left) and Catalan Socialist José Zaragoza.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal (left) and Catalan Socialist José Zaragoza.

There were, however, moments of tension, including when the voting for the new speaker of the house began. The members of Vox quickly realized that they could do nothing to take Zaragoza’s seat, even when he got up to cast his ballot, given that he could just do the same to them. “Do what you like,” he reports having told the politicians. “If you take my place I’ll take one of yours later, and we’ll be doing that all morning.”

The noise from the Vox lawmakers was such that it was often difficult to hear what the deputies were saying

Toward the end of the session, when the 350 deputies in the house had to swear or promise to do their duty as a lawmaker, tensions rose once again. The Vox deputies banged their desks and stomped their feet as the pro-Catalan independence leaders chose different manners to swear. Catalan Republican Left (ERC) leader Oriol Junqueras, for example, referred to himself as a “political prisoner.” Junqueras, along with three other deputies and a senator, is currently being tried in the Supreme Court for his role in the 2017 secessionist drive in the northeastern Spanish region, and is being held in custody while the judicial process takes place.

The noise from the Vox lawmakers was such that it was often difficult to hear what the deputies were saying. To Zaragoza’s right, Abascal was more discrete in his opposition to the scene playing out, but to his left, Espinosa de los Monteros was one of the more raucous deputies.

And that was the scene on Tuesday, as parliament was opened, with Zaragoza giving his 349 colleagues an lesson in resistance that lasted seven hours. “He was an example of dignity and strength, firm in his convictions, for everyone,” a PSOE lawmaker summed up, to the agreement of his colleagues.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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