Spain poised to strip Catalan government of powers over independence push

Senate in Madrid set to vote on imposing direct rule after Catalan government refuses to abandon drive for independence

Spanish lawmakers are poised to adopt extraordinary measures to seize control of some of Catalonia’s autonomous powers in an attempt to frustrate the region’s bid for independence, which has plunged the country into one of its worst political crises since Spain’s return to democracy four decades ago.

The senate, where the prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s party (PP) holds a majority, is scheduled to meet from 10am local time on Friday to vote on steps to depose Catalonia’s secessionist government before the week is out, after the region held a disputed independence referendum on 1 October.

The Catalan parliament, where pro-secession parties hold sway, will also meet on Friday, in Barcelona, where it will consider a declaration of independence.

Hopes of a possible solution to the Catalan independence crisis were dashed on Thursday evening after the regional president, Carles Puigdemont, ruled out a snap election, saying he could not offer fresh polls without a guarantee that the Spanish government would suspend its threat to impose direct rule.

Despite intense speculation that he was planning to defuse the situation by announcing elections in return for a similar show of good faith from the PP, Puigdemont said it now would be up to the Catalan parliament to decide how to respond to Madrid’s unprecedented actions.

“We have not received the necessary guarantees to justify holding elections,” he said in an address at the regional government palace in Barcelona on Thursday afternoon. “We have tried to get them but we have not had a responsible response from the PP and they have chosen to increase the tension. I have run out of options.”

Puigdemont said that although Catalan society had done its best to remain calm in the face of the Spanish government’s threats, he would not tolerate its efforts to take control of the region.

“The measures under 155 [the article of the constitution Spain is invoking against Catalonia] are illegal and unjust and I am not prepared to accept them,” he said. “No one can accuse me of not being willing to make sacrifices.”

The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, right, and vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, attend a session at the Catalan parliament in Barcelona on Thursday.
The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, right, and vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, attend a session at the Catalan parliament in Barcelona on Thursday. Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

In a letter to the senate earlier on Thursday, Puigdemont argued that 155 did not give the central government a “blank cheque”, adding that its use would create “an even more serious, extraordinary situation” if Madrid seized Catalonia’s political autonomy.

The Catalan leader has been under pressure from different factions within the region. Some had been urging him to cool tempers by announcing elections, while the main independence civil society groups and some of his coalition partners have called for an unambiguous declaration of independence.

Reports earlier on Thursday that he was preparing to hold elections and abandon his pledge to declare independence brought a swift and angry response from many of his allies.

The Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party, part of Puigdemont’s ruling coalition, said it would abandon the government if the president called elections.

Gabriel Rufián, an ERC MP in Madrid, implied that Puigdemont had betrayed the independence movement, tweeting: “155 pieces of silver.” Adrià Alsina, the press secretary of the grassroots Catalan National Assembly, tweeted: “Frau, Fraude, Fraud.”

Meanwhile, the far-left CUP party said it would not support elections, adding that the unilateral independence referendum held on 1 October had yielded a popular mandate.

The uncertainty brought thousands of people, many of them students, into Plaça de Sant Jaume in central Barcelona to protest outside the government palace.

Manel Llado, a 56-year-old administrator, had come to the rally after work as he was concerned that a unilateral declaration of independence was no longer a done deal. “A lot of people said Puigdemont betrayed us,” he said. “But it seems to me like a perfect government. I think this is a strategy to see what the central government will do: if they stop 155, they’ll call an election.”

Marta Homs, 19, a student who was attending her first demonstration, said she wanted to ensure her voice was heard. “It’s a bit confusing,” she said. “I like to think Puigdemont knows what he’s doing. It’s the first time I’ve tried to believe a politician; usually I don’t trust them.”

Another student, 18-year-old Jaume Cortasa, said the Madrid government and other opponents of independence had a clear strategy when it came to dealing with the Catalan question: “Whatever arguments you present them with, they’re going to continue rejecting them until they have something that suits them; until the independence-supporting parties are shut down.”

Protesters gathered in Barcelona on Thursday
Protesters gathered in Barcelona on Thursday. Photograph: Marta Perez/EPA

Miquel Berga, a professor of English literature at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, said images of Catalans being beaten by Spanish police as they tried to vote in the unilateral independence referendum held on 1 October had been “a great asset for the fight to obtain a legal referendum on the issue”.

But he added: “A unilateral declaration of independence, although it would bring an emotional release for many supporters, would supersede those powerful images, cause them to fade, and create more uncertainties and division in Catalonia.”

On Thursday Spain’s economy minister, Luis de Guindos, said officials dispatched from Madrid to oversee the implementation of 155 could face resistance. He told Spanish radio: “I hope that [Catalan] civil servants, who are highly professional … will be conscious that any act against Catalan society will be negative.”

Tensions between the governments in Madrid and Barcelona have risen to new heights following Puigdemont’s decision to defy Spain’s constitutional court by holding the referendum this month.

Although Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence two weeks ago, he has proposed that its effects be suspended for two months to allow for talks.

Rajoy has refused to engage in dialogue with Puigdemont until he abandons his independence plans and has said there can be no international mediation on a domestic, constitutional issue.

On Wednesday, Rajoy said Puigdemont’s disregard for the constitution had left him with no choice but to invoke article 155.

According to the regional government, 43% of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters took part in the referendum on 1 October, but a further 770,000 votes were lost after Spanish police tried to halt the vote. The Catalan government said it was not including those votes in its final turnout tally.


Sam Jones, Emma Graham-Harrison and Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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