Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont vows to resist Madrid

Catalonia’s president says there will be peaceful resistance to direct rule by Spain and promises to continue to work to ‘build a free nation’

Madrid claimed direct control of Catalonia for the first time in nearly four decades on Saturday, firing the regional government and police chief after a unilateral declaration of independence. But the deposed Catalan leader immediately vowed there would be peaceful resistance to the takeover.

Hours after the Spanish government formally announced his dismissal, and the replacement of his entire cabinet by counterparts hundreds of miles away, the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, put on an ostentatious display of normality with lunch at a restaurant in the centre of his home city. As he toasted friends with red wine, posed for pictures with supporters in Girona and enjoyed the applause of fellow diners, all broadcast live on national TV, a pre-recorded video message went out promising to continue to work “to build a free nation”.

“We must do so resisting repression and threats, without ever abandoning, at any time, civic and peaceful conduct,” he said in the brief statement, adding that his government did not have or want “the argument of force”.

The Catalan republic that was declared on Friday is not legal under current Spanish law. As well as removing Puigdemont’s existing powers, Madrid has dissolved the Catalan parliament that declared independence, and called new elections for 21 December, the earliest possible date.

Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría – who has managed the government’s response to the Catalan crisis – has been appointed to run Catalonia on a day-to-day basis until then. But the string of government orders published on Saturday morning provide only the outline for Madrid’s takeover. Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy now faces the challenge of implementing it.

The region has been officially self-governing since its statute of autonomy was signed in 1979, as Spain returned to democracy following the death of dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975. Many of the thousands of supporters of independence who were weeping and celebrating in the streets of Barcelona and other towns on Friday had pledged peaceful resistance to Madrid’s orders even before Puigdemont’s carefully worded call for resistance.

Spanish and Catalan flags hang together from a building overlooking Barcelona
Spanish and Catalan flags hang together from a building overlooking Barcelona Photograph: Borja Sanchez Trillo/Getty Images

Activists have offered to form human chains around buildings to protect officials, some of whom are expected to face arrest and possible jail sentences for their role in both the October referendum and the declaration of independence that followed.

Some of the region’s 200,000 civil servants have said they will not accept orders from Madrid, and one Catalan union has also called a 10-day strike starting tomorrow in support of the new republic, although larger groups have not joined them.

Josep Lluís Trapero, head of the regional Mossos d’Esquadra police, who won praise for his response to the August terrorist attacks, has been the only senior official to say he will comply with Madrid, accepting a demotion to commissar.

It is not yet clear whether legislators who support the independence declaration will be able to run for office again, but a new election may not end the challenge to Madrid. Recent polls suggest it would return a similar parliament to the one that has just been dissolved, with a slim majority of seats held by pro-independence parties, Associated Press reported.

Barcelona was calm on Saturday with no protests by either side, and the Spanish flag still flying from the Catalan government palace the night after thousands of ecstatic independence supporters had chanted for its removal. After days of focus on the push for independence, those Catalans who back staying inside Spain – often described as a “silent majority” – hoped the turmoil might spur opposition to the independence project.

On Sunday they will hold a long-planned march, and turnout is likely to be watched closely as a barometer of anti-separatist sentiment. Government polls in the run-up to the October referendum suggest their ranks swelled in recent months. “A lot of people will want to show they don’t agree with that kind of unilateral, illegal declaration. It has only served to create division. Our slogan is ‘We’re all Catalonia’,” said Alex Ramos, vice-president of pro-unity group Sociedad Civil Catalana.

Two anti-separatist supporters kiss each other during a demonstration in Barcelona.
Two anti-separatist supporters kiss each other during a demonstration in Barcelona. Photograph: Borja Sanchez Trillo/Getty Images

He accused local police of under-estimating turnout at their last pro-unity march, claiming that up to a million people took to the streets rather than the official 350,000. Numbers were swelled by supporters from other parts of Spain, but Ramos said 90% were from the region. “A lot of the people who turned out were Catalans who had never been on a demonstration before – people who had been silent for a long time. But that day, they wanted to express themselves and say that they were both Catalan and Spanish.”

Catalonia has long been one of Spain’s most prosperous regions, but the turmoil of the last months has taken its toll. Hundreds of companies have moved their headquarters out of Catalonia, or are making plans to do so.

The fledgling Catalan republic has received little support from overseas so far. Governments from Berlin to Washington rallied behind Madrid, while warning against escalation or violence, many driven in part by concerns about secessionist movements at home. “I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force,” said European Council president Donald Tusk.

One of the few voices offering some backing to Puigdemont came from Scotland, whose external affairs minister, Fiona Hyslop, condemned Madrid. “We understand and respect the position of the Catalan government. While Spain has the right to oppose independence, the people of Catalonia must have the ability to determine their own future. The imposition of direct rule cannot be the solution, and should be of concern to democrats everywhere.”


Emma Graham-Harrison, Sam Jones and Stephen Burgen

The GuardianTramp

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