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SPAIN THREATENS to take over Catalonia’s government as constitutional crisis looms

William Booth

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Spain’s central government announced Thursday it would quickly move to take control of Catalonia and restore “constitutional order” after the autonomous region’s president refused to back away from a push for independence.

Facing a deadline imposed by Spain’s central government to say whether Catalonia was declaring independence or not, the regional president replied Thursday that Madrid should stop threatening to seize control of Catalonia and instead agree to dialogue.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont answered Spain’s demand for clarity by sending a second letter to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, stating that Catalonia’s suspension of its declaration of independence remains in force.

But Puigdemont then added a threat of his own: If Madrid does not agree to talks, and continues its “repression” of the region, then the Catalan Parliament would meet to vote on a formal declaration of independence. 

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What's happening in Spain and how did we get here?
The Spanish government moved Oct. 19 to begin procedures to take control of Catalonia. (The Washington Post)

The Catalan government’s decision to effectively decline to respond to Madrid’s ultimatum brings Spain to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

The central government in Madrid quickly responded Thursday that it would begin legal procedures to implement Article 155 of the Spain’s 1978 constitution, which allows it to seize control of the regional government, its finances and police. Madrid announced a meeting of ministers for an “extraordinary” session on Saturday to approve the measure.

Such a move would be unprecedented in Spain’s 40 years since the end of the Francisco Franco dictatorship.

People in Catalonia — and around Spain — braced themselves for what would come next. 

Pro-independence activists in Catalonia went into rushed meetings Thursday to organize mass demonstrations, distribute instructions for peaceful civil disobedience and plan to surround government buildings.

There was widespread anxiety in Barcelona over possible clashes between national police, sent to enforce a takeover, and pro-independence demonstrators.

The chief of Catalonia’s regional police, Josep Lluís Trapero, has already been questioned by prosecutors over his alleged failure to protect federal forces sent into the region. Two other pro-independence activists have been jailed under suspicion of sedition. Puigdemont called them “political prisoners.” 

Rajoy has warned that if Catalonia declares independence, he will seek permission from the upper house of the Spanish legislature, where his party has a majority, to enact Article 155 of the constitution, an untested move.

No government has ever invoked the article, which allows the central government to take control of the autonomous government in Catalonia, a wealthy state in northeastern Spain that has a population of 7 million and its own language and culture.

Catalonia already enjoys substantial control over its affairs; the regional government holds sway over health care, education, media and local police.

If Madrid enacts Article 155, Rajoy could appoint his own deputies to Barcelona to steer the regional government’s ministries. It is unclear what would happen to Puigdemont. He could remain in his position as regional president but would be effectively powerless.

Earlier this month, Catalonia staged a chaotic independence referendum, marked by widespread civil disobedience. It was met by a harsh response in which National Police and Guardia Civil officers beat voters with rubber batons and dragged away ballot boxes.

The central government, backed by the courts, had declared the referendum illegal and unconstitutional.

Still, many in Catalonia demanded the right to vote and saw Madrid as callously disregarding the people’s will. Though many polling stations were raided by police, more than 2 million people managed to vote — and 90 percent chose independence. 

Critics charge that the referendum was hopelessly compromised, not only by riot police and legal challenges but by low turnout — only 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

After the Oct. 1 referendum, Puigdemont signed an independence declaration. But then he immediately suspended it, saying Catalonia wanted to negotiate with the central government, with help from Europe.

Leaders in Europe condemned both the staging of the referendum and the police tactics, stressing that it was an internal matter for Spain and that they would not recognize Catalonia as an independent nation and a member of the European Union.

When Spain’s prime minister spoke on Wednesday at the national parliament in Madrid, he was clearly frustrated.

“The only thing I am asking Mr. Puigdemont is that he act sensibly, that he act with balance, that he puts first the interests of all citizens, of all Spaniards and all Catalonians,” Rajoy said. 

The central government has given Puigdemont a series of deadlines to declare whether the Catalan authorities were proclaiming independence.

On Monday, the first deadline, Puigdemont wrote a letter to Rajoy, calling instead for two months of dialogue and a halt to what he called Spain’s “repression” of Catalan citizens and institutions. 

Rajoy said in parliament on Wednesday: “It’s simple and it’s not that difficult. It’s answering one question. Have you or have you not declared the independence of Catalonia? Because you understand if you have declared the independence of Catalonia, the government is obliged, because that is what it says in the constitution, that it must act in a certain way.”

Some leaders in Madrid said that Catalonia should suspend its declaration of independence and immediately move toward regional elections.

It is not clear what such elections would solve. It is possible that pro-independence sentiment has only grown in Catalonia in recent weeks.