Spain dissolves Catalan parliament and calls fresh elections

Political crisis deepens after secessionist MPs vote to create ‘Catalan republic as an independent and sovereign state’

The Spanish government has taken control of Catalonia, dissolved its parliament and announced new elections after secessionist Catalan MPs voted to establish an independent republic, pushing the country’s worst political crisis in 40 years to new and dangerous heights.

Speaking on Friday evening, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said his cabinet had fired the regional president, Carles Puigdemont, and ordered regional elections to be held on 21 December.

Rajoy said the Catalan government had been removed along with the head of the regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. The Catalan government’s international “embassies” are also to be shut down.

“I have decided to call free, clean and legal elections as soon as possible to restore democracy,” he told a press conference, adding that the aim of the measures was to “restore the self-government that has been eliminated by the decisions of the Catalan government.

“We never, ever wanted to get to this situation. Nor do we think that it would be good to prolong this exceptional [state of affairs]. But as we have always said, this is not about suspending autonomy but about restoring it.”

The actions came hours after Spain’s national unity suffered a decisive blow when Catalan MPs in the 135-seat regional parliament voted for independence by a margin of 70 votes to 10.

Dozens of opposition MPs boycotted the secret ballot, marching out of the chamber in Barcelona before it took place and leaving Spanish and Catalan flags on their empty seats in protest.

Minutes later in Madrid, the Spanish senate granted Rajoy unprecedented powers to impose direct rule on Catalonia under article 155 of the constitution.

The article, which has never been used, allows Rajoy to sack Puigdemont and assume control of Catalonia’s civil service, police, finances and public media.

The European Union, the UK, Germany and the United States all said they would not recognise Catalan independence and expressed support for Madrid’s to preserve Spanish unity.

Rajoy had earlier appealed for calm following the vote and promised that Catalonia would be returned to legal and constitutional order.

“What has happened today in the Catalan parliament is unequivocal proof of how necessary it was for the senate to approve the government’s proposals,” he said on Friday afternoon. “Today the Catalan parliament has approved something that, in the opinion of the great majority of people, is not just against the law, but is also a criminal act because it is intended to declare something that isn’t possible – Catalan independence.”

Rajoy’s cabinet held an emergency meeting to enact the measures and is expected to appeal against the independence declaration in the Spanish constitutional court.

Prosecutors will also file charges of “rebellion” against Puigdemont, a crime punishable with up to 30 years in jail, a spokesman said.

Much will now depend on exactly how the Spanish government goes about removing Catalan officials from office and how pro-independence activists and the Mossos d’Esquadra react to the intervention.

The result of the vote was greeted with jubilation by pro-independence MPs, who applauded and began singing the Catalan anthem, Els Segadors. Thousands of people who gathered outside Catalonia’s parliament cheered the announcement.

Pro-independence supporters flood streets near the Palau Generalitat in Barcelona.
Pro-independence supporters flood streets near the Palau Generalitat in Barcelona. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

Addressing the crowds, Puigdemont called for a peaceful response to the coming crackdown. “In the days ahead, we must keep to our values of pacificism and dignity,” he said. “It’s in our – in your – hands to build the republic.”

The joyous scenes outside the parliament jarred with the angry debate that preceded the vote inside. Opponents of independence accused Puigdemont and his allies of ignoring the views of the majority of Catalans who wished to remain part of Spain. They said he had declared independence on the back of a deeply flawed and undemocratic referendum.

Carlos Carrizosa of the centrist Ciutadans party described Friday as “a sad day and a blow to democracy”.

Turning on the regional government and its president, he said: “You’re like gods, above the law. How can you imagine you can impose independence like this without a majority in favour … and with this simulacrum of a referendum? Puigdemont will be remembered not for ruining Catalonia but for having divided the Catalans and Spain.”

Eva Granados of the Catalan socialist party asked: “Have you any idea how frightened many Catalans are?”

However, Carles Riera of the far-left, pro-independence CUP party, said the declaration would help transform the lives of working people. “We declare the republic of Catalonia,” he said. “This is a happy day.”

The independence declaration met with an unambiguous response from Donald Tusk, the president of the European council. “For [the] EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor,” Tusk tweeted.

However, in an apparent reference to the police violence that marred the unilateral independence referendum held on 1 October, he said: “I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force.”

The US state department also backed Rajoy’s efforts to halt Catalan independence. “Catalonia is an integral part of Spain, and the United States supports the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united,” said a spokeswoman.

Theresa May’s spokesperson said: “The UK does not and will not recognise the unilateral declaration of independence made by the Catalan regional parliament. It is based on a vote that was declared illegal by the Spanish courts. We continue to want to see the rule of law upheld, the Spanish constitution respected and Spanish unity preserved.”

Some of the pro-independence Catalans who gathered near parliament expressed the hope that a republic could be established peacefully and with international support.

“We are not afraid of what will happen,” said Gregorio Castillo, who had travelled to Barcelona from Girona. “We will respond to any measure from Madrid in our own peaceful way. We hope that Britain, Germany and France will help us achieve this; that Europe will see us as a country.”

Earlier on Friday, Rajoy had appeared before the upper house of the Spanish parliament to request authorisation for the government’s use of article 155.

He told senators that Puigdemont’s decision to flout the Spanish constitution by staging the independence referendum had forced the central government to take the unprecedented step of imposing direct rule.

In a speech punctuated by loud applause, he requested permission to remove Puigdemont’s administration, saying recent events in Catalonia represented “a clear violation of the laws, of democracy, of the rights of all – and that has consequences”.

Rajoy said Puigdemont’s continued refusal to confirm whether or not independence had been declared was a step too far.

Although the Catalan leader signed a declaration of independence on 10 October, he proposed its effects be suspended for two months to allow for dialogue with Madrid.

“He was given the opportunity to clarify whether there had been a unilateral declaration of independence,” the prime minister said. “This is not a trifling matter. An answer was required and it wasn’t a difficult one: yes or no.”

He criticised Puigdemont for turning down an invitation to explain himself before the senate “Dialogue has two enemies,” he said. “The first is abusing the law, ignoring it and disobeying it. The second is when someone only wishes to listen to themselves and won’t understand or try to understand others.”

The Catalan leader dashed hopes of a possible way out of the crisis on Thursday when he refused to call a snap election, saying he could not offer fresh polls without a firm guarantee that the Spanish government would suspend its threat to impose direct rule.

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


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

The GuardianTramp

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