In one of the most momentous days in the country’s recent history, Spain was plunged into crisis yesterday as the government in Madrid seized power from independence seeking Catalonia, the first curtailment of regional autonomy since the days of the brutal dictatorship of general Francisco Franco.
After lawmakers voted unilaterally to declare a Catalan “republic,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy moved swiftly to dissolve the rebel government and the regional Parliament, calling December 21 elections to replace them. “It’s not about suspending or meddling in the self-government (of Catalonia), but to return it to normality and legality as soon as possible,” Rajoy said in a televised address.
In an escalating stand-off closely watched by secession-wary Europe, Rajoy fired pro-independence leader Carles Puigdemont and all his ministers as well as the director of the regional police, and Catalan envoys to Madrid and Brussels, to halt what he termed an “escalation of disobedience.” In dramatic scenes earlier in the day, secessionist lawmakers voted 70 to 10 in the 135-member Parliament to declare Catalonia “a republic in the form of an independent and sovereign state.”
They take their mandate from the “Yes” result in a banned and unregulated October 1 independence referendum, which was marred by violence from the police and spurned by many more than half of Catalan electors.
Observers warned of trouble ahead, with Catalan officials and public servants likely to defy orders from caretaker envoys sent by the central government. “Tensions are likely to rise significantly over the coming days,” suggested Teneo Intelligence, a risk analysis group.
“Demonstrators might try to prevent the police from removing Catalan ministers from their offices... this increases the risk of violent clashes.” The region of some 7.5 million people accounts for about 16 percent of Spain’s population, a fifth of its economic output, and attracts more tourists than anywhere else in the country.
Catalonia’s inhabitants are fiercely protective of their language, culture and autonomy – restored after a long period of oppression during nationalist Franco´s 1936-1979 rule. In Barcelona, separatists broke out in ecstatic shouts of: “Independence!” and popped bottles of cava, a Catalan sparkling wine, as the outcome of Friday’s vote was announced.
Separatist MPs cheered and embraced before singing the Catalan anthem.
But any cause for joy was soon nipped in the bud, and shares in Spanish companies, particularly Catalan banks, dropped sharply as the crisis deepened.
“We Spaniards are living through a sad day in which a lack of reason prevailed upon the law and demolished democracy in Catalonia,” Rajoy said. The sweeping measures were approved by the Senate Friday under a constitutional article designed to rein in rebels among Spain’s 17 regions.
GOV’T BACKS SPAIN. The Argentine government quickly issued statements backing for Spain, as Madrid’s allies in the European Union and the United States rallied behind the central government, emphasising Catalonia’s diplomatic isolation.
“The Argentine Government does not recognise and rejects the declaration of independence proclaimed by the Parliament of Catalonia,” read a statement from the Foreign Ministry. “Argentina hopes that through the constitutional mechanisms, legality will be restored within the framework of a peaceful coexistence of the Spanish people, guaranteeing the unity and territorial integrity of Spain.” European Council President Donald Tusk said Madrid “remains our only interlocutor” following the independence vote.
The UN urged both sides Friday to “seek solutions within the framework of the Spanish constitution, and through established political and legal channels.”
Puigdemont appealed for calm. “We will have to maintain the momentum of this country (Catalonia) in the coming hours,” he told lawmakers and onlookers in Barcelona after the legislature vote, and urged them to do so in the spirit of “peace, civic responsibility and dignity.”