Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asked lawmakers to grant him unprecedented powers to force leaders of the Catalonia region to cease their independence push, a dramatic escalation in the confrontation between Spain and the separatist region, which the WSJ - and virtually everyone else - has said will be a major test for Spanish democracy. According to The Spain Report, this is the first time in the modern democratic period that a central government has suspended home rule in one of Spain's 17 regions.
Rajoy announced that his central government would use Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to remove the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, and sack the entire Catalan regional government as part of a barrage of actions, and force new elections on the region within six months. Summoning the sweeping powers of Article 155, Rajoy said Saturday, was a last resort.
Puigdemont and his regional administration will be removed from office once the Spanish Senate approves the government’s plan as soon as this week and Spanish government ministers will take over the management of the Catalan administration, Rajoy said according to Bloomberg. The responsibilities of the Catalan government will be administered in the interim period by central government ministries. Furthermore, the Catalan Parliament will not be allowed to present a new candidate for First Minister, to prevent Puigdemont from being reappointed.
Rajoy said "This is not a suspension of home rule but the dismissal of those who lead the regional government". The Spanish Senate will be in charge of controlling the process. As a result, Rajoy said Spain’s central government would temporarily control Catalonia’s regional ministries until new elections are called. The prime minister said he is seeking to convene regional elections within six months.
"The First Minister of the Catalan government was invited to parliament and he did not accept", said Mr. Rajoy, in a long press conference following an extraordinary cabinet meeting on Saturday, adding that Catalan leaders had tried to "impose" their will on the central government.
“We are going to work to return to normality,” Rajoy said, as car horns sounded in downtown Madrid. “We are going to work so that all Catalans can feel united and participate in a common project in Europe and the world that has been know for centuries as Spain.”
Rajoy also said that “the economic recovery is under an obvious threat because of Catalonia,” during the Madrid press conference, and said that “this is about peoples lives, jobs, salaries" as "Companies are fleeing” and "data on tourism is also worrisome, the tensions are deterring visitors.”
The "most anti-democratic part" of the past few weeks was "what happened in the Catalan Parliament on September 6 and 7". "Dialogue is a lovely word", said the PM, but "Dialogue does not mean the others have to accept your demands". "Dialogue outside of the law is deeply undemocratic".
Rajoy said there were four aims of applying Article 155 in Catalonia:
- to return to the rule of law,
- to get back to normality and "coexistence",
- to continue with the economic recovery, and
- to hold elections in a situation of normality.
He said the six-month period before elections was the maximum period of time he would like to see pass before a new vote. The PM also said the Article 155 can now only be stopped "if the Senate does not approve it", which however won't happen as the governing Popular Party holds an absolute majority in the Spanish Senate.
Rajoy thanked two opposition parties, the Socialists and Ciudadanos, for their support for the measures, and said that Saturday's announced measures had been hammered out in recent days with leaders from two of the main oppositions parties, a sign of the widespread political support for the prime minister’s bid to halt Catalan authorities’ accelerating steps to secede from Spain.
As Bloomberg notes, the move may be "a watershed moment for Spain and its 1.1 trillion euro ($1.3 trillion) economy, which counts on Catalonia for a fifth of its output." Hundreds of companies have already set up headquarters elsewhere in the country to avoid a legal limbo that emerged after Catalan leaders on Oct. 10 claimed the right to an independent republic.
And now that Spain has ended the game of cat and mouse, and effectively pulled the plug on Catalan independence, with the central government’s measure due to come into force within days Catalan leaders are due to meet Monday to discuss whether to push ahead with a unilateral declaration of independence. With Madrid having taken the first step, Puigdemont now has the liberty of playing the "oppression" card, even if Spain explicitly stated it is not suspending Catalan autonomy, so the semantical war of words will continue, although for the separatist movement the time has now come to either officially declare independence or end the process.
The question is what happens should the Catalan leaders follow through and declare Catalonia is independent, forcing retaliation, perhaps violent, from Spain. The answer will be unveiled shortly: the Catalan President will make a statement at 9pm according to a spokesman, and Puigdemont also attend a demonstration in downtown Barcelona at 5 p.m.