Rift deepens in wrangle over Catalonia's autonomy

 25 Oct 2017 - 19:30

Rift deepens in wrangle over Catalonia's autonomy
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont (R) and Vice President Oriol Junqueras read documents during a cabinet meeting at Generalitat Palace in Barcelona, Spain, October 24, 2017. Reuters/Ivan Alvarado

AFP

Barcelona:  Catalonia appeared to be steering Wednesday towards a head-on clash with Spain, after its separatist leader snubbed senators in Madrid preparing to depose his independence-seeking government.

As pro-secession activists started gathering on the streets of Barcelona, Carles Puigdemont turned down an invitation to state his case before a senate committee Thursday, or a meeting of the full house Friday.

Puigdemont's team sought to shift blame for the stalemate onto Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who said Wednesday that triggering Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, devised to rein in rebel regions, was "the only possible response" to the independence push.

The central government, interpreted a source close to Puigdemont, "has already announced that it will implement Article 155 no matter what".

The worst political crisis in Spain in decades was sparked by a "Yes" vote in a banned October 1 referendum on independence for the semi-autonomous region which accounts for 16 percent of Spain's population and 20 percent of its economic output.

The region of 7.5 million people is fiercely protective of its language and culture and has long struggled for self-determination.

Its inhabitants, however, are deeply divided on independence from Spain, and only about 43 percent of eligible voters -- some 2.3 million -- turned out in a plebiscite that did not meet electoral standards.

Puigdemont subsequently announced, and suspended, a unilateral declaration of independence, prompting Madrid to turn to the never-before-used Article 155. It gives the government ill-defined and untested powers when the country's "general interests" come under threat.

Only two days remain before the senate approves measures stripping Puigdemont and his executive of all political power, and seizing control of Catalonia's institutions and finances.

'Contempt for our laws'

The measures would come into effect once published in the government gazette on Saturday, and remain in place for up to six months -- until elections are called and a new Catalan parliament sworn in.

On Thursday, the Catalan parliament will have its own sitting to start formulating a response to Madrid.

Some fear the 135-member parliament, in which pro-secessionists hold a majority, may opt to vote to unilaterally carve Catalonia away from Spain.

Another option would be for Puigdemont to call early elections for a new regional government, widely seen as a move that could hold Madrid at arm's length, at least for a while.

Rajoy Wednesday accused independence-seekers of "contempt for our laws, the constitution, Catalonia's status and contempt for millions of Catalan citizens who see that their government has liquidated the law."

As the pressure built, cracks appeared between separatist regional leaders.

Several members of Puigdemont's executive urged elections rather than rebellion at a weekly meeting on Tuesday, a source close to the Catalan leader told AFP.

Other allies, however, will accept nothing less than a unilateral declaration of independence.

Civil society groups, too, piled on the pressure, organising a march on the regional parliament for Wednesday evening to push for an independent Catalan republic.

'Ready and available'

Committees for the Defence of the Referendum -- civilian groups set up to defend the October 1 vote and now spread out across Catalonia -- called a protest under the banner "No 155, no elections. A republic now."

The groups had mobilised thousands of Catalans to "protect" voting booths against police seeking to break up the October 1 referendum ruled illegal by Spanish courts.

Other groups organising resistance include the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural.

"As from Thursday, we have to be ready and available to mobilise in the streets," Catalan MP Antoni Castella told AFP at an ANC planning meeting.

An anti-independence march is planned for Sunday in Barcelona.

Whatever happens, observers fear the standoff will spark unrest in the northeastern region where tourism numbers have dropped and close to 1,500 companies have removed their legal headquarters since the banned referendum.