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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Spain: Threat of violence as Madrid denies 'coup' and Catalan leader declares 'worst attack since Franco'

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”.

Nearly half a million demonstrators took to the streets of Barcelona to protest Madrid's direct rule over Catalonia. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Nearly half a million demonstrators took to the streets of Barcelona to protest Madrid's direct rule over Catalonia. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The Spanish government is attempting the worst attack on Catalonia since Franco, declared the Catalan President in response to Madrid’s plans for direct rule.

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 ministers to take over the top jobs of the Catalan government, including taking control of the police, the region’s finances and public media.

The plan will go before the Senate for approval on Friday. The ruling centre-right party has a majority in the Senate and so the measures are likely to pass. How Mr Rajoy’s plans could be implemented without the use of force has not been explained.

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”.

Mr Rajoy's announcement prompted Mr Puigdemont to lead an estimated 450,000 demonstrators wrapped in red-and-yellow Catalan flags onto the streets of central Barcelona on Saturday, holding up signs calling for freedom.

Denouncing Mr Rajoy’s move, the Catalan leader said the Spanish government was attempting the “worst attack on the institutions and people of Catalonia since the decrees of the military dictator Francisco Franco abolishing the Generalitat [parliament] of Catalonia”.

Passionate pro-Independence supporters have said they will surround parliament or any building which their leader Carles Puigdemont is in to create a human shield and prevent his arrest.

The speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, has called measures announced by the government on Saturday a "de facto coup d'état".

In a bid to de-escalate matters, Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said on Sunday: “'All the government is trying to do, and reluctantly, is to reinstate the legal order, to restore the constitution but also the Catalan rules and proceed from there”,

He has denied that Madrid is mounting a coup, saying instead, “if anyone has attempted a coup, it is the Catalan regional government”.

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.

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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.

Two-thirds of the region’s mayors defied the Spanish courts to help organise the referendum and thousands risked criminal charges by working as volunteers or hiding ballot boxes in their houses.

However, 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.

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.

The Catalan secessionist challenge was not officially on the agenda of the European summit of state and government leaders held on Thursday and Friday this week in Brussels.

Yet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron publicly announced their sympathy with Madrid.

“We are taking a very close look at Catalonia and are supporting the position of the Spanish government, which happens to be supported by all major political parties in Spain,” said Ms Merkel.

While Mr Macron said that “this European Council will be marked by a message of unity, unity around our member states in the face of the crises they may experience, unity around Spain.”

Speaking in blunter terms, Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, said: “Nobody in the EU would recognize the independence of Catalonia”.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who has stared down demands for a second Scottish referendum, said she spoke personally to Mr Rajoy and “made clear that the United Kingdom’s position is very clear. We believe that people should be abiding by the rule of law and uphold the Spanish constitution”.

Mr Puigdemont will appear before Catalonia’s parliament tomorrow and has threatened to make a unilateral declaration of independence if the government went ahead with the crackdown.