Sunday 22 September 2019

Spain lays down the law

Catalan nationalists reject Madrid's hardline plan to oust regional leaders and take control

MARCHING TO A showdown: The Catalan regional leadership, with Carles Puigdemont centre, lead a march of Catalan pro-independence groups in Barcelona yesterday. Photo: Lluis Gene/Getty
MARCHING TO A showdown: The Catalan regional leadership, with Carles Puigdemont centre, lead a march of Catalan pro-independence groups in Barcelona yesterday. Photo: Lluis Gene/Getty

Isla Binnie

The Spanish prime minister sparked off a torrent of opposition yesterday after he outlined plans to remove Catalonia's leaders and take control of the separatist region.

Speaking after an emergency cabinet meeting, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy stopped short of dissolving the region's parliament - but put forward plans for elections in the region.

The measures must now be approved by Spain's Senate in the next few days. The ruling Popular Party has an absolute majority in the chamber and is expected to receive wide support to keep Spain unified.

In a move formulated under a constitutional provision never before invoked in Spain's 40 years of democracy, the Madrid government plans to assume a range of powers.

Rajoy is asking for authorisation to sack the regional government including president Carles Puigdemont, his deputy Oriol Junqueras, plus other high-profile figures in the independence drive who organised the illegal vote on secession on October 1.

Central government ministries will take over the regional administration until calling fresh elections within six months of direct rule coming into force.

The Catalan parliament will retain a representative role, but the reginoal government will operate under the supervision of bodies chosen or created for the purpose by Madrid.

The new administrators will take control of the Mossos d'Esquadra regional police force, which has become embroiled in the controversy over the independence bid after failing to act to stop the illegal referendum or to protect the national police who were drafted in to provide extra security.

The Mossos, whose chief is under investigation on suspicion of sedition, will have to act on direct orders from their new bosses.

If deemed necessary, Mossos officers may be replaced by national police.

Spain's economy ministry has already increased its control over regional finances, to block the use of state funds to organise the secession bid, and started paying directly for essential services. Under the new proposal, Madrid keeps financial control.

Widely-watched Catalan public television TV3 will come under central control. Madrid's proposal to the Senate says this will ensure the information transmitted is "true, objective and balanced, in line with political, social and cultural pluralism, and territorial balance."

The Senate, where Rajoy's People's Party has a majority, will vote on the proposal on October 27. The opposition Socialist and Ciudadanos parties are backing Rajoy.

After the measures are approved, they can be activated immediately or put on hold to be implemented in the future. Puigdemont could call an election himself before Rajoy's plan comes into action, in which case direct rule would likely not be implemented.

A Madrid spokesman said the government was not revoking Catalonia's autonomy, only removing regional officials who broke the law.

Nevertheless, the reaction in Catalonia has been resoundingly in favour of independence.

In a televised address late last night, Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont called Rajoy's plans an "attempt to humiliate" Catalonia and an "attack on democracy."

Puigdemont's comments were a veiled threat to push ahead with an independence declaration for Spain's richest region. They came after he joined a protest march in Barcelona which called for the release of two prominent pro-independence activists currently being held in a Madrid jail.

Puigdemont called Rajoy's move the "the worst attack" on Catalan people and institutions since Franco's abolishment of Catalonia's regional government in 1939.

Earlier the speaker of the Catalan regional parliament had said Madrid's plans represent a "coup" and an "attack against democracy".

"Rajoy wants the parliament of Catalonia to stop being a democratic parliament, and we will not allow this to happen," Carme Forcadell said in a televised speech.

"This is why we want to send to the citizens of this country a message of firmness and hope. We commit today, after the most serious attack against the Catalan institutions since they were restored, to the defence of the sovereignty of the parliament of Catalonia," she said, referring to her region as a country.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau - who had opposed a declaration of independence in Catalonia based on the October 1 referendum - criticised the central government yesterday and called its moves "a serious attack" on Catalonia's regional autonomy.

Beyond politics, the president of Barcelona football club Josep Maria Bartomeu yesterday said that the famed soccer club was backing the leaders of Catalonia in response to the Spanish government's decision to take over the regional government.

Sunday Independent

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