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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

PM pledges to sack Catalonia's leaders in fight for the future of Spain 

The leader of the rebellious region claims the power grab is an attack on democracy as thousands take to the streets to protest

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will trigger Article 155. REUTERS/Juan Medina
Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will trigger Article 155. REUTERS/Juan Medina

The Spanish government unveiled plans on Saturday to sack the separatist leaders of Catalonia and call new regional elections under previously unused and wide-reaching powers to prevent the country from breaking up.

Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, said that he wanted the country’s senate to allow ministers to take over the top jobs of the Catalan government, including taking control of the police, the region’s finances and public media.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said that the plans to replace him and his cabinet was an attempt to “humiliate” the region and an “attack on democracy”. In a sign of the deeply entrenched divisions between Madrid and the restive region, he signalled to local politicians that they should press ahead with independence.

Mr Rajoy's announcement prompted thousands of protesters wrapped in red-and-yellow Catalan flags to flood the streets of central Barcelona on Saturday, holding up signs calling for freedom.

In a combative televised response late Saturday, Mr Puigdemont said the regional parliament should “debate and decide on the attempt to wipe out our self-government and our democracy, and act accordingly”.

The decision to press for the abolition of the Catalan leadership, impose direct rule and push for elections within six months followed a special cabinet meeting on Saturday morning, almost three weeks after the controversial independence referendum took place.

The vote, which was ruled illegal by the supreme court, saw 90 per cent of the 43 per cent of Catalans who took part in the poll ask for independence. Many anti-independence supporters boycotted the ballot and claimed it was not valid.

Mr Puigdemont claimed the referendum result gave him a mandate to pursue independence. He and other regional leaders signed a declaration of independence, but immediately suspended it in order to allow for talks. Mr Puigdemont missed two deadlines set by the national government in which he had been asked to clarify Catalonia’s position.

Now, Spain’s government has taken historic steps to take back power.

The move by the prime minister was the worst attack on the Catalan people since the late Spanish leader General Franco abolished Catalonia’s regional government in 1939, Mr Puigdemont claimed. Other Catalan leaders described it as a coup.

Article 155 of the Spanish constitution allows the national government to impose direct rule over Spain's semi-autonomous regions if there is a crisis. It does not suspend the autonomy of Catalonia, which is guaranteed in Spain’s constitution and the Statute of Autonomy, but it allows the government to take special measures to force the region to adhere to its constitutional obligations.

It states that if a region's government "acts in a way that seriously threatens the general interest of Spain", Madrid can "take necessary measures to oblige it forcibly to comply".

It has never before been invoked in democratic Spain. The article is only two paragraphs long and does not outline rules for implementation.

Its implementation, as explained by the prime minister, is based on four objectives of the government: return to legality, restore normalcy and coexistence, continue economic recovery and hold to elections in the region.

“We are not suspending Catalonia's autonomy nor its self-governance. We're just reinstating normality,” said Mr Rajoy.

Mr Rajoy has stopped short of dissolving Catalonia’s parliament but will hold elections for the region within six months.

The government’s next steps include requesting authorisation from the senate to temporarily dissolve the roles of Catalonia’s president, vice president and the advisers of the Catalan government. Their duties will be carried out by the corresponding ministries in the Madrid government during what the government has declared a crisis.

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Catalan leader calls for calm ahead of Madrid deadline

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The Spanish senate is expected to meet next Friday to address the measure.

El Pais, the Spanish newspaper, reports that the government will have the ability to take control of TV3, the primary television channel of Catalan public broadcaster Televisió de Catalunya, “to ensure the transmission of ‘truthful and objective information balanced”.

The paper also reports that Madrid can issue direct and compulsory instructions to the police and state security forces.

Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras said new elections were "not the best way of moving forward".

Catalonia currently has significant autonomy from Spain, including control over its own policing, education and health care.

Catalonia accounts for around a fifth of Spain's economic output.

Supporters of independence say the region contributes too much to the national economy, while those opposed believe Catalonia is stronger within Spain.

Nearly 1,200 companies based in Catalonia have re-registered in other parts of Spain since the referendum and and Spain this week cut its national growth forecast for 2018 from 2.6 per cent to 2.3 per cent.