Spanish PM to sack Catalan government

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gestures after finishing a news conference at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid on Saturday. (Reuters Photo)

MADRID: Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Saturday that he would curb the powers of the parliament of Catalonia, sack its government and call an election within six months in a bid to thwart a drive by the autonomous region to breakaway from Spain

Rajoy said his government had taken the unprecedented decision to restore the law, make sure regional institutions were neutral, and to guarantee public services and economic activity as well as preserve the civil rights of all citizens.

The measures must now be approved by the Senate, where the prime minister’s party enjoys a majority, in a vote scheduled for Oct 27.

The dramatic use of previously untapped constitutional power allows Madrid to take control of Catalonia and derail the independence movement led by separatist politicians in the prosperous industrial region anchored by Barcelona.

Rajoy said after a special cabinet session that he wants the Senate to allow central ministers to take over functions from all the regional cabinet members and give him the power to call regional elections — something that only Catalonia’s top leader can do now.

The prime minister said he was using Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution in order to “restore normalcy” in the country, which faces its most grave institutional crisis in decades. He said a new regional election in Catalonia should be held in the next six months.

“There is no country in the world ready to allow this kind of situation within its borders,” the prime minister said. “It is my wish to call elections as soon as normality is restored.”

In addition to his party having a majority in the Senate, Rajoy has the backing of the main opposition parties in the move to quash independence for Catalonia and maintain Spain’s territorial integrity.

Article 155 allows central authorities to intervene when one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions fails to comply with the law. It has never been applied since the 1978 Constitution was adopted, but Rajoy’s conservative government says establishing direct control over Catalonia was a move of last resort.

The move is expected to spark angry opposition from both independence supporters and moderate Catalans, who will see it as an attack on their autonomy.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who was scheduled to deliver a televised address around 2am Sunday Thailand time, has threatened to call a vote in the regional parliament for an explicit declaration of independence from Spain.

Catalan grassroots organisations that have been key drivers in the secession bid called the measures “authoritarian” and urged the immediate proclamation of a new Catalan republic.

Other Spanish political parties were also aghast.

“We are in shock about the suspension of democracy in Catalonia,” said Pablo Echenique of the far-left Podemos party, vowing to work to oust Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party from the national government.

The slow-burning constitutional crisis over secession escalated this month when regional government officials held a disputed independence referendum on Oct 1. They then declared the result — which was strongly in favour of independence — gave them a legal basis for separating from Spain even though the vote itself had numerous problems.

Spain’s courts declared the vote illegal, police intervention and violence in attempts to halt it made it chaotic, turnout was less than half the region’s electorate and most opponents of independence boycotted it.

The Constitutional Court has so far ruled against all moves toward secession, including the Catalan referendum. The court’s website appeared to be offline Saturday, and a spokeswoman said it had been affected by hackers.

Spain’s National Security Department said slogans supporting independence for Catalonia had popped up amid cyberattacks on a number of government websites.

Spain’s opposition parties have agreed to support Rajoy in revoking Catalonia’s autonomy as a way to thwart the region’s independence drive.

The pro-business Citizens party president Albert Rivera said he backed Rajoy’s measures because Catalonia needs to restore social unity and legal security so companies can remain in the region. Hundreds have transferred their registered headquarters out of Catalonia to other areas in Spain, fearing the chaos that independence — or the fight over it — could bring.

Barcelona resident Rosa Isart said the central government’s determination to prevent Catalonia from leaving Spain reminded her of the dictatorship of Gen Francisco Franco four decades ago.

“It seems unbelievable that I have to see this again because of the incompetence of these politicians who don’t know how to speak to each other,” Isart said.