Spain’s most pressing political crisis since its rocky transition to a democracy 40 years ago entered a new phase after Madrid laid out plans to impose direct rule over the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia. In Barcelona, leaders of the independence movement said any attempt at central control would be ignored and opposed.
On October 21, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said his government’s plan to temporarily dissolve Catalonia’s autonomy by applying Article 155 (link in Spanish) of Spain’s constitution, a first in the country’s history since the death of fascist dictator General Francisco Franco.
But elected politicians in Catalonia responded defiantly. The president of the regional government, the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, said his parliament would debate Madrid’s move, but declared it “the worst attack against the institutions and the people of Catalonia since the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco. On BBC radio, the region’s foreign affairs minister said officials would reject direction from Madrid.
“It’s not that we will refuse (orders). It is not a personal decision. It is a seven million-person decision,” Raul Romeva told the Today programme.
Speaking at a press conference after a two-hour meeting with his Cabinet on Saturday, Rajoy said the decision was taken to “protect the general interest of the nation”, Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported.
The prime minister intends to sack Puigdemont, and his executive leadership, place the region’s police force, public media and finances under Madrid’s control, and temporarily curb the Catalan parliament’s powers until regional elections are held sometime in the next six months.
It is now up to the Senate to decide whether to authorize the measures proposed by the prime minister (link to El Mundo in Spanish). But the upper house, which is controlled by Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), is widely expected to ratify his decision in a session set for October 27.
Calm before protesters react
As Rajoy spoke, ordinary people in the streets of Barcelona took little notice of the potentially momentous news. People sat outside cafes eating lunch, parents took their children to the park, and tourists ambled through the city center.
But only a few hours later, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators congregated on the Passeig de Gracia – one of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares – to protest Madrid’s plan and demand the release of two imprisoned Catalan independence leaders.
Protesters waved the separatist Estelada flag, chanted “independence” and “freedom”, and held up “Free [the] Jordis!” signs distributed by pro-independence volunteers.
Jordi Sanchez of Asamblea Nacional Catalana (ANC) and Jordi Cuixart of the Omnium Cultural organization were jailed last week by Spain’s National Court. The pair are being investigated for alleged crimes of sedition as this piece from The Washington Post details. If found guilty, they face up to 15 years in prison.
Joan Fabregat Badia, 84, attended the demonstration in his wheelchair. He told WikiTribune he came to express his solidarity with the two imprisoned separatist leaders and Catalonian independence.
“They’re not delinquents, they’re not politicians, they’re normal people – like me,” he said.
Mercè Esteve, 45, brought her whole family to protest. She told WikiTribune: “The only thing Puigdemont’s government can do is attend to what the [Catalan] people is asking, the popular mandate. No other politician does that.”
Not all want independence
But not all Catalans are against Rajoy’s plans. Francisco Oya, 60, said he was totally in favor of Spain applying Article 155: “Not only am I in favor, but I also think that it should have been applied much earlier. We wouldn’t be in this situation had it been applied before.”
On October 1, Catalonia held an independence referendum that Spain’s Constitutional Court had ruled illegal. Although 90 percent of voters backed independence, the total turnout was 42 percent. Many who stayed at home are thought to have done so to boycott the event. The referendum was also marred by police repression, which left hundreds of people injured, as well as by voting irregularities.
Free (the) Jordis” signs handed out by volunteers at the #21Oct demo in #Barcelona are raised by thousands of protesters @WikiTribune https://t.co/vKepo2m0wt
The Catalan leadership condemned Madrid’s actions. Carmen Forcadell, the president of the region’s parliament, strongly criticized the Spanish government’s refusal to “dialogue” with separatist leaders and said Rajoy’s plans amount to a “de facto coup d’état”.
Carles Puigdemont struck a defiant tone in his defense of Catalan independence and said the region would not accept direct rule.
“The Catalan institutions and the people of Catalonia cannot accept this attack”, the regional president said. “With the support of the Socialist Party and Ciudadanos, [Rajoy] has embarked on the worst attack on Catalonia’s institutions and the Catalan people since the decrees of the military dictator Francisco Franco”.
Franco’s long shadow
The memory of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship casts a particularly long shadow in Catalonia. The region was a bastion of doomed Republican resistance during the country’s civil war (1936-1939) and had its language and many of its traditions forcibly suppressed by Franco, who ruled until his death in 1975.
Spain’s Socialist Party (PSOE) and Ciudadanos, the country’s second and fourth largest parties, support Rajoy in his bid to apply Article 155. PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez said: “The PP has an idea of Spain that is totally different to ours, but [the notion of] territorial integrity unites us both”.
Puigdemont also appealed to European Union (EU) citizens. “If European foundational values are at risk in Catalonia, they will also be at risk in Europe,” said Puigdemont. “Democratically deciding the future of a nation is not a crime.”
But the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, rebuffed Puigdemont’s plea at an event organised by Italian newspaper Il Foglio on October 22.
“No European country will recognise Catalonia’s independence,” said Tajani. The EU official added that the crisis is “not about [Catalan] autonomy, but a proclamation of independence that is in contempt of the rule of law and against the Spanish Constitution.”