The latest chapter in Spain’s political upheaval unfolded on Saturday as Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy introduced plans to remove Catalonian leaders from their positions and call elections, asserting Madrid’s takeover of the region following a contentious independence referendum.
Rajoy did not completely dissolve the Catalonian government as some had feared, but he did say he would ask the Senate to invoke Article 155 of Spain’s 1978 constitution. No leader has invoked Article 155 — which allows for the suspension of autonomy in semi-independent regions like Catalonia — in the 40 years since the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco came to an end.
Following an emergency cabinet meeting, Rajoy emphasized that the move was intended to target pre-existing regional leaders rather than autonomy more broadly.
“This is not a suspension of home rule but the dismissal of those who lead the regional government,” Rajoy claimed.
Once Rajoy’s proposals obtain Senate approval, the prime minister said the goal was to call elections within six months. But that plan isn’t likely to go smoothly — if anything, Rajoy’s latest maneuvers are likely to spur further unrest and turmoil.
Catalonia has nurtured a deeply independent streak for many years; the region has its own language and culture, along with an increasingly independent regional government. While that’s also true of other parts of Spain, such as the northern Basque region, Catalonia’s efforts toward independence have arguably been more successful — helped along by the thriving city of Barcelona and a booming economy, one-fifth of the entire country.
Rajoy’s aggressive crackdown is a direct response to Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont’s recent efforts to move toward full autonomy. Three weeks ago, despite ongoing threats from the Spanish government, Puigdemont defiantly held an independence referendum.
Violence quickly erupted as members of Spain’s Guardia Civil security forces dispatched by Madrid sought to thwart the referendum by force. More than a thousand people were injured as national police forces beat civilians, while Catalonia’s own security forces — the Mossos d’Esquadra — served as virtual buffers between their national counterparts and Catalan citizens.
Many international figures and organizations have condemned Spain’s unnecessarily harsh crackdown. Madrid has stood by its actions, however, arguing the measures were taken to preserve Spain’s unity.
Meanwhile, Catalonia has been in turmoil. Only 43 percent of voters are believed to have participated in the referendum, but 90 percent of those voters opted for independence.
Initially expected to declare independence from Spain, Puigdemont stopped short of announcing a split with Madrid following threats of national intervention should he do so. Instead, the leader “suspended” the secession process while looking to open talks with Spain, ideally with the mediation of E.U. officials, though E.U. governments by and large have indicated their support lies with Spain.
Puigdemont’s move did little to placate Rajoy. The prime minister has accused Catalan leaders of violating the law and threatening national stability. Rajoy gave Puigdemont a deadline — the Catalan president had until last Thursday to formally commit to Spain, or risk the region’s autonomy. After the day came and went, Rajoy vowed to go forward with threats to invoke Article 155.
“It simply cannot be, in today’s Europe, that there is a country where the law is not observed,” Rajoy said Friday night.
He revived those comments the next day, saying that triggering Article 155 is “not our wish, it was not our intention,” but a necessity in the interest of preserving the law.
Both Madrid and Catalonia are in a tenuous position. Spain arguably has more support; German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and E.U. head Sebastian Juncker have all backed the national government over its regional opposition. Spain’s King Felipe VI has also offered his support to Rajoy. But while many Spanish citizens oppose Catalan independence, they also strongly oppose the government’s harsh measures. The national left-wing party Podemos, for instance, opposes secession but has expressed sympathy with the protesters. Party lawmakers have called for a free and fair independence vote across the region.
Following the prime minister’s announcement on Saturday morning, Podemos leaders rebuked the government. “We’re shocked by the suspension of democracy in Catalonia,” said Pablo Echenique, a senior member of the party.
As of Saturday afternoon, Catalan officials seemed unlikely to acquiesce to Rajoy’s demands.
“[T]he Spain of today is not democratic because what [Rajoy] has said is a return to the year 1975,” said Josep Lluís Cleries, a Catalan senator, referencing the end of Franco’s reign. Along with several Catalan politicians, he argued that Rajoy’s efforts were destructive to democracy.
“In the face of totalitarianism, today more than ever, we defend democracy and civil and political rights, you will find us there,” Catalan Vice-President Oriol Junqueras tweeted.
Puigdemont has previously threatened to ask Catalan lawmakers to vote on independence in defiance of Madrid. He is set to address protesters following a rally Saturday afternoon.