Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy delivers a statement after an extraordinary cabinet meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, on Friday. (Reuters photo)
BARCELONA: Spain’s leader fired the government of the country’s Catalonia region Friday, dissolved the regional Parliament and ordered new elections after defiant Catalan lawmakers declared independence, escalating the biggest political crisis to hit Spain in decades.
The measures announced by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in a televised address capped a frenzied day of political maneuvering in Madrid, Spain’s capital, and Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, where the long drive for independence — illegal under Spain’s Constitution — has now reached its fiercest level yet.
“We believe it is urgent to listen to Catalan citizens, to all of them, so that they can decide their future and nobody can act outside the law on their behalf,” Rajoy said.
“We never wanted to reach this situation, never,” he said.
The steps announced by Rajoy mean Spain will take direct control over one of the country’s autonomous regions for the first time since Spain embraced democracy in 1978.
How quickly and forcefully that control will be imposed — and whether separatist leaders will resist — were unclear as of Friday night. But the coming days could determine whether the takeover is peaceful or turns messy and violent.
At the end of what he called “a sad day” for Spaniards, Rajoy assured them that he had the means to end a secessionist threat that, he said, was based on “lies, frauds and impositions.”
He removed the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, and his Cabinet, as well the director general of the autonomous police force. He also closed down Catalonia’s representative offices overseas.
In ordering the Catalan Parliament to dissolve, Rajoy said new regional elections would be held Dec 21.
Pending the elections and formation of a new regional government, Rajoy said, Catalonia’s administration would be run from Madrid.
Fueled by a distinct language and culture as well as economic grievances, aspirations for a separate state have percolated for generations in Catalonia before boiling over this month.
The events Friday, coming in the chaotic aftermath of an Oct 1 independence referendum in Catalonia, were greeted variously with anger, concern and elation on both sides, with the prospect of even more volatile confrontations in days ahead as the Spanish government moves to put the steps in place.
Spain’s attorney general may now seek to detain Catalan leaders on grounds of rebellion.
Such moves were likely to turn the boisterous separatist street celebrations that greeted the independence declaration Friday into mass protests, with one Catalan labor union already calling on workers to stage a general strike Monday.
During the debate in the regional parliament that preceded their vote for independence, Catalan lawmakers traded accusations and in turn described the occasion as “historic” and “happy,” or else “tragic” and a violation of Spain’s Constitution, perhaps the only thing on which both sides agreed.
Within an hour of the Catalan vote, the Spanish Senate in Madrid voted 214-47 to invoke Article 155 of Spain’s Constitution, granting Rajoy extraordinary powers to take direct administrative control over the region and remove secessionist politicians, including Puigdemont, the Catalan leader.
In a speech Friday before the vote, Rajoy had said he had “no alternative” because Puigdemont and his separatist government had pursued an illegal and unilateral path that was “contrary to the normal behavior in any democratic country like ours.”
Undeterred by the government’s threat, and after a bitter debate, separatists in the Catalan Parliament passed a resolution to create “a Catalan republic as an independent state.” Most of the lawmakers opposed to independence walked out of the chamber in protest before the vote.
European leaders made clear Friday that they would not be recognising Catalan independence and would support Rajoy, as leader of one of the bloc’s most important member states. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, wrote in a Twitter post that “nothing changes” and “Spain remains our only interlocutor.”
Addressing the Catalan Parliament in Spanish, Carlos Carrizosa, a lawmaker from Ciudadanos, a party that opposes secession, told Puigdemont and separatist lawmakers that, far from creating a new Catalan republic, “you will go down in history for having fractured Catalonia and for sinking the institutions of Catalonia.”
In front of the assembly, he tore apart a copy of the independence resolution. “Your job is not to promise unrealisable dreams but to improve the daily lives of people,” he said.
Before the independence vote, Marta Rovira, a separatist lawmaker, told the assembly that “today we start on a new path” to build “a better country.” She added: “We are creating a country free of repression.”
Catalan lawmakers who voted for independence could face prosecution for sedition, or even rebellion.