Catalan leader vows 'peaceful resistance' as Madrid takes control of region

Carles Puigdemont issues defiant video message urging ‘democratic opposition’ as cabinet are removed from their posts

The Catalan leader has issued a defiant response to Madrid’s decision to take direct control of Catalonia, calling for “democratic opposition” to the takeover.

In a brief video message issued on Saturday afternoon, Carles Puigdemont vowed to continue working to build “a free country”.

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

Madrid reacted to the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence on Friday by firing the regional government and dismissing the head of the local police force.

Puigdemont and his cabinet were formally removed from their posts, and their powers and responsibilities taken over by central government in notices posted to the official state bulletin on Saturday morning.

The orders provided an outline for a takeover approved by the Spanish senate on Friday, but Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, now faces the challenge of implementing them.

Puigdemont responded to Madrid’s move with a choreographed show of normality, going out for drinks and lunch at a restaurant in his hometown of Girona, as the pre-recorded statement played out on national TV. He briefly stepped out to take a photo with supporters, to applause from other diners.

Many of the thousands of independence supporters who were weeping and celebrating in the streets of Barcelona and other towns on Friday had already pledged peaceful resistance to Madrid’s orders.

Activists had offered to form human chains around buildings to protect officials, and some of the region’s 200,000 civil servants have already said they will not accept orders from Madrid.

One Catalan union has called a 10-day strike in support of the new republic starting on Monday, although larger trade bodies have not so far joined.

Josep Lluís Trapero, head of the regional Mossos d’Esquadra police, who was praised 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.

Beyond the sweeping assumption of powers, Madrid took wider aim at the project of Catalan statehood pursued by the regional government.

Among other orders, it dismantled informal embassies set up by Catalonia in countries from Denmark to Morocco, and dismissed a tribunal set up to investigate rights abuses during the 1 October referendum, when Spanish police were widely criticised for their use of force.

The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy
The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, now faces the challenge of implementing Madrid’s rule on Catalonia. Photograph: Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images

Rajoy has also dissolved the regional parliament and called elections for 21 December, with a 15-day campaign period laid out in the new orders.

Spain’s deputy prime minister, whose official title is vice-president of the government, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaria – who has managed the government’s response to the Catalan crisis – will run Catalonia on a day-to-day basis until then.

It is not clear whether legislators who supported the independence declaration will be able to run for office again, but polls suggest a new election would return a similar parliament to the one that proclaimed independence.

A slim majority of seats would be held by pro-independence parties, but they would still receive less than half of the popular vote, Associated Press reported.

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 Gen Francisco Franco.

However, as pro-independence Catalans celebrated, those who back staying inside Spain – often described as a “silent majority” – hoped the turmoil might also have spurred opposition to the independence project.

On Sunday they will hold a long-planned march in support of remaining part of Spain, 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 slightly in recent months.

“We think there will be a lot of people who will want to show that they don’t agree with that kind of unilateral, illegal declaration. It has only served to create division. People want to express themselves, and our slogan is ‘We’re all Catalonia’,” said Alex Ramos, vice-president of pro-unity group Societat Civil Catalana.

He accused local police of underestimating turnout at their last pro-unity march, claiming that up to a million people may have taken to the streets rather than the official 350,000. Numbers were swelled by some people from other parts of Spain, but Ramos said nine out of 10 of them were from the region.

People in Barcelona listen to a statement by the sacked Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont
People in Barcelona listen to a statement by the sacked Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

“A lot of the people who turned out were Catalans who’d never been on a demonstration before, people who’d been silent for a long time. But that day, they wanted to express themselves and say that they were both Catalan and Spanish.”

Their concerns are political and economic, but also emotional. Catalonia has long been one of Spain’s most prosperous regions, but the turmoil of the last months has taken a 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 have 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 the European council president, Donald Tusk.

One of the few voices offering some backing to Puigdemont and the parliament came from Scotland, whose external affairs minister 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,” said Fiona Hyslop. “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 in Barcelona

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