Spain Takes Control of Catalonia, Pushing a Crisis Into Higher Gear

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Carles Puigdemont woke up this Saturday morning as president of Catalonia, but by lunchtime, he was out of a job. For the first time in its nearly 40 years of democracy, Spain has acted upon Article 155, the provision in its constitution that permits it to revoke powers from autonomous regions during times of crisis. And as Puigdemont knows better than anyone, Catalonia is nothing if not a crisis.

Three weeks after a referendum on secession that was banned by the Spanish constitution, but nonetheless brought more than 2 million to the polls to vote, Catalonia’s — and Spain’s — moment of truth has arrived.

Although those who turned out to cast ballots (only 43% of eligible voters) resoundingly supported independence, Catalans today saw their self-determination dramatically diminished, rather than increased. Once the measures that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy proposed this morning are approved by the senate, the region will be under direct Spanish rule.

Not that Rajoy put it like that exactly.

“We are not suspending the autonomy or the self-government of Catalonia,” he said at a press conference after a cabinet meeting in which the measures were hammered out. “Rather, we are asking the Senate for the cessation [in power] of those persons who have put [Catalonia] outside the law.”

Those persons include Puigdemont, the vice president and the rest of his cabinet. In their places, Spanish ministries will assume their responsibilities until elections can be held sometime in the next six months — which, to many Catalans, sounds exactly like the suspension of their autonomy.

“They’re doing away with the government, they’re rescinding nearly all of its powers. That’s a textbook suspension of autonomy,” says Ferran Requejo, professor of political science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. “It’s a coup d’etat from within.”

Supporters of the prime minister’s decision, however, point out that Mr. Puigdemont refused requests that he repeal the independence bid, which is clearly illegal under the Spanish constitution, and that now he is facing the consequences of that refusal.

“In the past, whenever there were conflicts with the state over autonomy, Catalonia at least maintained what it had; it might gain more but it didn’t lose anything,” says José Ignacio Torreblanca, opinion editor of the newspaper El País. “That’s not necessarily the case anymore.”

Although the Spanish Senate must first approve the measures Rajoy proposed, two other parties, including the main opposition party, have expressed their support for the prime minister’s use of Article 155, and no obstruction is expected when the upper house convenes on Friday. Yet even with that resounding determination, the game of cat and mouse that has occupied the Spanish and Catalan governments is hardly over.

On Thursday, Puigdemont suggested in a letter to the prime minister that although the Catalan parliament had not declared independence yet, it may well do so were Article 155 invoked. As of this writing, he has not divulged what his next move will be, but the Spanish attorney general confirmed this morning that should Puigdemont go ahead with the declaration, he would be charged with rebellion — a graver crime than sedition and one punishable by 30 years in prison.

Whatever happens next, Catalonia’s options are diminishing.

Previously, some factions within the Catalan government were floating the idea that Puigdemont might call elections on his own, or form a new “concentrated” government that could project an image of unity as it amplifies its requests for dialogue. But if he is stripped of office, he will not be able to do either of those things.

The only thing that is for certain at this point is that Puigdemont and his cabinet will attend a rally Saturday afternoon to protest the imprisonment earlier this week of two leaders of the independence movement for sedition. If the caceroladas — the spontaneous banging of pots in protest — that broke out immediately following Rajoy’s speech are any indication, they will have plenty of support.

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