Spanish Government Seeks to Remove Catalan President, Suspend Autonomy
Spain's prime minister on Saturday assumed the jurisdiction needed to dissolve the Catalan parliament, dismiss the region's government and call for elections as Catalonia's autonomy was reeled back in response to its recent independence bid, which was deemed unconstitutional by the Spanish judiciary.
(Barcelona) A difficult week begins for Catalonia, the rich industrial region of northeastern Spain whose capital is Barcelona.
On Saturday, the Council of Ministers, chaired by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (PP), decided to approve article 155 of the Constitution for the first time in the history of Spanish democracy, a measure that allows de facto deferment the powers of autonomy of Catalonia.
This "punitive" measure, proposed by the PP, with the support of the Socialists (PSOE), the other great Spanish state party, has been taken in response to the separatist challenge of the Catalan government started a month and a half ago. Although the full version of Article 155 will not be applied, the package of measures is by no means "soft": it orders the suspension of the government, including its president, and the Catalan parliament, the Mossos (regional police) as well as the intervention of Treasury and Public Television, which would remain under central government control for at least six months, or until regional elections are convened.
Prime Minister Rajoy insisted that regional elections should be convened "sooner as possible" to re-establish the institutional order in Catalonia and control the possible socio-economic instability that has created the separatist process initiated by the Catalan government unilaterally, and that Madrid (with the support of the European Union) considers totally outside the law.
Catalonia has been ruled by a separatist government and parliament since November 2015. The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, has since promoted a policy aimed at achieving independence, alleging mainly the unbalanced economic and fiscal relationship between Catalonia and Madrid. (the basic idea is that in proportion to what Catalonia contributes fiscally, receives less state investment than the other regions). However, the separatist cause has now also touched historic, identity and emotional reasons, following the classic signs of rising nationalism.
The Catalan government has been fighting for ten years to get a better Estatut - (autonomy staute) the law that regulates the territorial relationship with Madrid, - to achieve more fiscal autonomy and greater regional power, as have other autonomous communities such as Navarre and the Basque Country. It also asked that Catalonia should be recognized as a "nation" inside Spain.
Nevertheless, Madrid has been continuously opposed to the requests of Catalonia, even daring to cut the Estatut that the Catalans had already voted in referendum in 2006, and that it had been approved by the regional Parliament and the Spanish congress.
The fact that Madrid has been deaf to the demands of the Catalans for many years has served as a stimulus to independence, especially since 2010, when the Constitutional Court issued the ruling declaring some of the articles of the Statute "unconstitutional."
The growth of the independentist phenomenon, spurred by the rulers as well as by the citizen platforms like ANC and Omnium, triggered in peaceful manifestations, each year ever greater. For six years, coinciding with National Day of Catalonia, September 11, tens of thousands of Catalans have taken to the streets to demand a legal referendum on independence, to which Madrid continued to turn a deaf ear under the premise that a referendum self-determination is "unconstitutional".
After the 2015 elections and the consolidation of a regional government with a separatist majority, the current president Carles Puigdemont decided to "throw himself into the pool" alone on the road to independence.
On 6 and 7 September 2017, in two marathon parliamentary sessions that lasted until late at night, the Catalan Parliament passed two controversial laws: the "Referendum Law" - which called for a referendum on independence on 1 October 2017 - and the "Transiency Act" - which involved the unilateral declaration of independence (DUI) 48 hours after the referendum, in case the "yes" won. Both laws were then suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court.
Despite the alleged illegality, the controversial 1-0 referendum took place, albeit in very complex conditions (including catalan government hidding ballot boxes in citizen houses and ciberattacks by Madrid government to the electoral system) almost looking like a science fiction film. The state government of Mariano Rajoy did everything possible to stop the referendum, ordering the displacement of hundreds of police to seal election schools and confiscate ballot boxes.
On the other hand, the citizens had occupied the schools during the previous days to avoid that they were closed. In some schools, unfortunately, the Spanish police did not hesitate to charge violently against the voters who protected the schools. More than 900 people were injured in police charges of 1-O, according to figures from the Catalan government. Madrid denies that the national police made disproportionate use of violence that day, but photographs of riot police carrying truncheons against peaceful voters went around the world, fouling the image of Spain.
On September 20, ten days before the controversial referendum, Madrid had also ordered the registration of several government offices of the Catalan government and the arrest of a dozen public officials for alleged links in the organization of the referendum. ANC and Omnium, the two main civilian independence organizations called people to manifest in front of the offices where the agents carried out the order, which prevented them from leaving until dawn.
Although sept 20 demonstrations were mainly peaceful (except for the destruction of patrol cars), the state prosecutor's office denounced the leaders of the two organizations for sedition and blocked the execution of a court order. Both leaders were arrested and jailed last week by order of a judge of the National Court. In Catalonia, the two leaders - Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart - have been described as "political prisoners" and thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in recent days to ask for their release under the slogan #llibertatjordis. Amnesty International has called for the immediate release of the two Jordis and dennounced that charges of sedition are excessive.
At the moment, they are in preventive jail because the judge considered that there was risk of escape. The chief of the Mossos, the Catalan national police, is also accused of sedition, but he was released on bail.
This week, for sure, will be tense. On Saturday night, a few hours after Rajoy's appearance to announce the agreed measures of article 155, President Puigdemont gave a televised speech in Catalan, Spanish and English calling the Spanish government's decision the worst "attack" on democracy since the days of dictator Franco (who died in 1975). Hours earlier, about 450,000 protested in the center of Barcelona against article 155 and to demand the release of the two Jordis.
Although the results of the controversial referendum gave 90% victory to "Yes" (with a 42% participation, some 2.3 million people), the Catalan government had not yet proclaimed unilateral independence (DUI). Puigdemont announced it would leave it "in suspension" to ask for dialogue with Madrid. Prime minister Rajoy, however, insists that he rejects to negotiate with a "blackmailer" government.
Although it hasn't occurred yet, the ghost of a potential DUI has triggered the risks of economic instability: hundreds of companies have relocated their headquarters outside of Catalonia and tourist bookings in Barcelona have fallen by more than 20%.
In his televisded speech - European and catalan flag behind - Puigdemont announced that he would convene an extraordinary session of the Catalan Parliament this week to put the situation under discussion and take relevant decisions before the Senate approves the application of article 155 on Friday. He has several options on the table: declare independence, go to the Senate in person to defend f the position of the Generalitat - which has always asked for dialogue - or to call for anticipated regional elections. The autonomic government of Catalonia, as well as the economic and social stability of the region in the coming months, are in his hands.