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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Catalonia faces Madrid rule after leader refuses to call election

Regional president says Spanish government refused to offer guarantees in exchange for snap poll  

People pack Sant Jaume square in Barcelona, Spain on October 26, 2017 as they protest against the Spanish government announcement of implementing article 155 in Catalonia region. Emilio Morenatti / AP Photo
People pack Sant Jaume square in Barcelona, Spain on October 26, 2017 as they protest against the Spanish government announcement of implementing article 155 in Catalonia region. Emilio Morenatti / AP Photo

Catalonia was braced on Thursday for Madrid to impose direct rule after the regional leader failed to secure backing for a snap election to break the deadlock over its independence referendum.

Carles Puigdemont, the Catalonian leader, spent the day attempting to set up an early election but failed to secure promises from Madrid that the central government would scrap its own plans for direct rule.

The Spanish senate will meet on Friday to approve powers under article 115 of the constitution that allows Madrid to suspend the devolved administration. Madrid could then call regional elections for early in the new year. Central government officials are expected to temporarily take over powers from Mr Puigdemont and his ministers as early as next week.

The crisis was triggered by an independence referendum on October 1 that returned a 90 per cent yes for independence. Only two in five voters turned out, however, after the supreme court ruled the exercise was illegal.

After his climbdown, Mr Puigdemont said it was up to the Catalan National Assembly, which met on Thursday night, to fashion a response to Madrid. It has also called its members to surround the regional parliament from noon on Friday to form a human shield as a symbolic stand against the senate decision. "Now we have to defend the republic," the assembly leadership said in a text message to its members.

Large crowds gathered outside the regional government building early on Thursday hoping that Mr Puigdemont, who had sent his actress wife and children out of the country, would declare independence. Banners reading "Republic Ara" - Republic Now - filled St Jaume Square. Instead they got a day of confusion as backroom negotiations fell apart. A scheduled announcement that Mr Puigdemont would trigger regional elections on December 20 was scrapped at midday.

Speaking in parliament in Madrid, the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy appeared to welcome elections, describing the prospect as a “wise decision”. He has said he is only reluctantly invoking article 155 to restore the rule of law after the Catalonia schism.

But he would not grant Mr Puigdemont a guarantee that the article would not be triggered anyway.

"I was ready to call an election if guarantees were given," Mr Puigdemont said. "There is no guarantee that justifies calling an election today.

“We’ve been forced by the Spanish government. They want more tension, when what we need is dialogue. We must now follow our own desires.”

But the Catalan leader also faced a backlash from independence supporters gathered in the square and around Barcelona. Chants of "traitor" rose up from the youthful crowd gathered on the cobblestones. Others shouted “our patience is over".

"Puigdemont traitor, only guarantee for self-determination: the working class," read a banner held high.

Mr Puigdemont's minority government also faced defections from minor parties, and a revolt against the president’s plans brewed in the regional assembly.

It was all a far cry from the determination that the Catalan rulers had shown until the day of decision arrived. Oriol Junqueras, the deputy leader, had declared Catalonia had “no other option” on Wednesday night.

Away from the squares there are substantial fears of the effect on the regional economy, one of the strongest in Spain. Madrid ministers already claim weakening growth is evident and that is having a political impact.

“The scenario of independence is one that we cannot allow and which will not happen,” Spanish economy minister Luis de Guindos said. He added there was already a "significant slowdown" in economic activity in the region. "They’re caught in a mousetrap. It seems their own decisions are producing vertigo.”

Fresh elections could heighten divisions within the secessionist camp and bring the independence drive to a halt.

Cracks have appeared in the secessionist coalition between those who believe elections offer a stronger platform than an illegal referendum with only 40 per cent turnout. The majority appear to think there is no alternative to a unilateral declaration of independence.

An opinion poll published by El Periodico newspaper on Sunday showed a snap election would probably have results similar to the last ballot in 2015, when a coalition of pro-independence parties formed a minority government.

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