Catalan separatists weigh options after Spain raises the stakes

Agence France-Presse
Catalan separatists weigh options after Spain raises the stakes


(UPDATED) Catalan parties will meet on Monday, October 23, to discuss their next steps

BARCELONA, Spain (UPDATED) – Catalonia’s separatists were weighing their options Sunday, October 22, after Spain took drastic steps to stop the region from breaking away by dissolving its separatist government and forcing new elections.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and his regional executive – who sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades by holding a banned independence referendum on October 1 – will be stripped of their jobs and their ministries taken over under measures announced Saturday, October 21, by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

“Yesterday there was a fully-fledged coup against Catalan institutions,” said Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull.

“What happens now, with everyone in agreement and unity, is that we will announce what we will do and how,” he told Catalunya Radio.

Rajoy has taken Spain into uncharted legal waters by moving to wrest back powers from the semi-autonomous region, which could see Madrid take control of the Catalan police force and replace its public media chiefs.

The move sparked outrage among separatists, with nearly half a million taking to the streets of regional capital Barcelona on Saturday and Puigdemont declaring Rajoy guilty of “the worst attack on institutions and Catalan people” since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Among other repressive measures, Franco – who ruled from 1939 until 1975 – took Catalonia’s powers away and banned official use of the Catalan language.

Though Catalans are deeply split on whether to break away from Spain, autonomy remains a sensitive issue in the northeastern region of 7.5 million people, which fiercely defends its language and culture and has previously enjoyed control over its policing, education, and healthcare.

Rajoy said he had no choice but to force Puigdemont out by triggering never-before-used constitutional powers, as the Catalan leader refuses to drop his threat to declare a breakaway state.

Spain’s Senate is set to approve the measures by the end of next week. Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party (PP) holds a majority in the upper house, while other major parties also back his efforts to prevent a break-up of the nation.

What now?

In a crisis that has sent jitters through one of Spain’s most important regional economies and rattled stock markets, Rajoy has ordered fresh elections to be called within 6 months of the Senate hearing, which would see a vote by mid-June at the latest.

Separatist parties of all political stripes, from Puigdemont’s conservatives to the far-left, have dominated the Catalan parliament since the last election in 2015, holding 72 seats out of 135.

Ahead of a meeting of Catalan parties Monday, October 23, to organize a crucial session of the regional parliament to debate next steps, Turull insisted on RAC1 radio that elections were “not on the table.”

Political analysts warn that Madrid faces a serious struggle in practical terms to impose control over the region.

Potential scenarios include Catalan police and civil servants refusing to obey orders from central authorities. 

“What is going to happen if they don’t abide by it?” said Xavier Arbos Marin, a constitutional law professor at the University of Barcelona, raising the prospect of the government trying to “take them out by force.”

He said there is fierce debate among experts over whether the government’s actions are even legal.

Independence supporters may also seek to scupper the plans through civil disobedience, such as surrounding regional ministries to thwart officials sent by Madrid.

“If police try to enter one of the Catalan institutions, there will be peaceful resistance,” said Ruben Wagensberg, spokesman for new activist group En Pie de Paz.

‘Group of rebels’

Asked if Puigdemont will be arrested if he shows up for work, Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis tried to strike a reassuring tone.

“We are not going to arrest anyone,” he told BBC television, dismissing the idea of the army having to be brought in to enforce order.

But he warned that if Puigdemont’s government keeps trying to give orders, “they will be equal to any group of rebels trying to impose their own arbitrariness on the people of Catalonia.”

Puigdemont says 90% backed a split from Spain in the referendum, but turnout was given at 43% as many anti-independence Catalans stayed away from a vote that was declared illegal by the courts.

Opinion polls suggest the wealthy region is evenly split over independence, with separatists saying it pays too much into national coffers but their opponents arguing it is stronger as part of Spain. – 

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