Catalonians, Spanish leaders weigh their options


Mon, Oct 23, 2017 - Page 1

Catalonia’s separatists yesterday were planning their response after Spain on Saturday took drastic steps to stop the region from breaking away by dissolving its separatist government and forcing new elections.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his regional executive — who sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades by holding a banned independence referendum on Oct. 1 — are to be stripped of their jobs and their ministries taken over under measures announced by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

“Yesterday there was a fully-fledged coup against Catalan institutions,” Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull told Catalunya Radio. “What happens now, with everyone in agreement and unity, is that we will announce what we will do and how.”

Rajoy has taken Spain into uncharted legal waters by moving to wrest back powers from the semi-autonomous region, which could see Madrid take control of the Catalan police force and replace its public media chiefs.

The move sparked outrage among separatists, with nearly half a million taking to the streets of regional capital, Barcelona, on Saturday and Puigdemont declaring Rajoy guilty of “the worst attack on institutions and Catalan people” since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Among other repressive measures, Franco took Catalonia’s powers away and banned official use of the Catalan language.

Though Catalans are deeply split on whether to break away from Spain, autonomy remains a sensitive issue in the northeastern region of 7.5 million people, which fiercely defends its language and culture, and has previously enjoyed control over its policing, education and healthcare.

Rajoy said he had no choice but to force Puigdemont out as he refuses to drop his threat to declare independence after a referendum that had been declared unconstitutional.

Responding to accusations of a “coup,” Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfonso Dastis yesterday told BBC television: “If there is a coup d’etat, it is one that has been followed by Mr Puigdemont and his government.”

“What we are doing is following strictly the provisions of our constitution,” he said.

However, asked if Puigdemont would be arrested if he shows up for work or the army brought in to enforce order, Dastis promised no arrests would be made when the Catalan government is dismissed.

“We are not going to arrest anyone,” he said. “All the government is trying to do is reinstate the legal order, restore the constitution but also the Catalan rules and proceed from there.”

However, he said that if Puigdemont’s government keeps trying to give orders, “they will be equal to any group of rebels trying to impose their own arbitrariness on the people of Catalonia.”

The Spanish Senate is set to approve the measures by the end of next week. Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party (PP) holds a majority in the upper house, while other major parties also back his efforts to prevent a break-up of the nation.

Rajoy has ordered fresh elections to be called within six months of the Senate hearing, which would see polls held by mid-June next year at the latest.

Separatist parties of all political stripes, from Puigdemont’s conservatives to the far-left, have dominated the Catalan parliament since the last elections in 2015, holding 72 seats out of 135.

Ahead of a meeting of Catalan parties today to set a date and agenda for a crucial session of the regional parliament to debate next steps, Turull insisted on RAC1 radio that elections were “not on the table.”

Political analysts said Rajoy faces a serious struggle to impose control over the region. Potential scenarios include Catalan civil servants and police refusing to obey orders from central authorities.

“The basic problem is that you have to govern Catalonia with the active opposition of a large part of the population,” analyst Jose Fernandez-Albertos said.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg