Barcelona: Spain’s Mariano Rajoy announced Saturday plans to initiate a process of direct rule by the central government in Madrid, fire the Catalan president, take over the regional government and force elections in the separatist-led region within six months. The central government is also poised to take charge of Catalonia’s autonomous police force, known as the Mossos, and the Catalan public broadcaster, TV3.
After a 2 1/2-hour special Cabinet session, Rajoy said the central government in Madrid would assume all duties of the regional administration in Catalonia, in line with Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — pending Spanish Senate approval.
It was the first time that Spain’s government had moved to strip the autonomy of one of its 17 regions, and the first time that a leader had invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — a broad tool intended to protect the “general interests” of the nation.
“The government had to enforce Article 155. It wasn’t our desire, nor our intention. It never was,” Rajoy told reporters in Madrid. “But in this situation, no government of any democratic country can accept that the law is ignored.”
Rajoy said he was not revoking Catalonia’s autonomy, but rather “restoring normality and coexistence.”
He said his government was putting an end to “a unilateral process, contrary to the law and searching for confrontation” because “no government of any democratic country can accept that the law be violated, ignored and changed.”
Mr. Rajoy said the Catalan government had never offered real dialogue but had instead tried to impose its secessionist project on Catalan citizens and the rest of the country in violation of Spain’s Constitution.
The unexpectedly forceful moves by Mr. Rajoy, made after an emergency cabinet meeting, thrust Spain into uncharted waters as he tried to put down one of the gravest constitutional crises his country has faced since embracing democracy after the death of its dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.
Mr. Rajoy took the bold steps with broad support from Spain’s main political opposition, and will almost certainly receive the required approval next week from the Spanish Senate, where his own conservative party holds a majority.
He did so despite repeated appeals for dialogue and mediation by the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, whose independence drive has been shunned by wary European Union officials.
Mr. Rajoy did not ask to dissolve the Catalan Parliament, but instead said that the president of the assembly would not be allowed to take any initiative judged to be contrary to Spain’s Constitution for a period of 30 days, including trying to propose another leader to replace Mr. Puigdemont.
Mr. Rajoy said that his goal was to arrange new Catalan elections within six months, so as to lift the measures taken under Article 155 as soon as possible.
It’s unclear, however, how such elections would be organized or whether they would significantly change Catalonia’s political landscape, let alone help to resolve the territorial conflict.
Mr. Puigdemont led a mass demonstration in Barcelona, the region’s capital, on Saturday afternoon, before giving his official response to Mr. Rajoy’s decision.
Several Catalan separatist politicians, however, reacted immediately to Mr. Rajoy’s announcement, warning that it would escalate rather than resolve the conflict.
Faced with Madrid’s decision to remove him from office, Mr. Puigdemont could try to pre-empt Mr. Rajoy’s intervention and instead ask Catalan lawmakers to vote on a declaration of independence in coming days — as he had threatened to do earlier this month.
Mr. Puigdemont could also then try to convene Catalan elections, on his own terms, to form what he could describe as the first Parliament of a new Catalan republic.
Should Mr. Puigdemont resist Mr. Rajoy’s plans, Spain’s judiciary could separately step in and order that he and other separatists be arrested on charges of sedition or even rebellion for declaring independence.
Rebellion carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years. Earlier this week, a judge from Spain’s national court ordered prison without bail for two separatist leaders, pending a sedition trial.
With 7.5 million residents, Catalonia is Spain’s economic engine, contributing about a fifth of Spain’s total gross domestic product and more than a quarter of exports. Its economy is larger than that of Portugal or Finland.
Article 155 had never been invoked in Spain’s 39-year democratic history. The 1978 constitution sought to reverse the centralized power of dictator Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. The survival of Spain’s young democracy was believed to rest on that devolution of powers.
The Catalan region held an independence referendum on October 1, after which it was ruled illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court on Tuesday and was described as “one of the biggest affronts to the Spanish Constitution from a regional parliament.”