Spain Moves to Take Control of Catalonia After Secession Vote – New York Times
BARCELONA, Spain — For the first time in Spain’s democratic history, the government will take direct control over one of the country’s autonomous regions, after lawmakers in Catalonia ended weeks of agonized fence-sitting on Friday and voted to secede.
The dueling declarations — by the national parliament in Madrid and the Catalan regional parliament in Barcelona — escalated a years-old independence drive in the prosperous northeast region to its fiercest level yet.
Fueled by a distinct language and culture and economic grievances, aspirations for a separate state have percolated for generations before boiling over this month to confront Spain with perhaps its worst constitutional crisis since it embraced democracy in 1978.
The events Friday, coming in the chaotic aftermath of an Oct. 1 independence referendum in Catalonia, were greeted variously with anger, concern and elation on both sides, with the prospect of even more volatile confrontations in days ahead as the Spanish government decides how specifically to put the steps in place.
Mr. Rajoy’s government could start stripping Catalonia of its administrative autonomy as early as Friday night. In parallel, Spain’s attorney general could seek to detain Catalan leaders on grounds of rebellion.
Such moves were likely to turn the boisterousseparatist street celebrations that greeted the independence declaration on Friday into mass protests, with one Catalan labor union already calling on workers to stage a general strike from Monday.
During the debate that preceded their vote, Catalan lawmakers traded accusations and in turn described the occasion as “historic” and “happy,” or else “tragic” and a violation of Spain’s Constitution, perhaps the only thing on which both sides agreed.
Within an hour of the Catalan vote, the Spanish Senate in Madrid voted 214 to 47 to invoke Article 155 of Spain’s Constitution, granting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy extraordinary powers to take direct administrative control over the region and remove secessionist politicians, including the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, who may now be subject to charges of rebellion.
In a speech on Friday before the vote, Mr. Rajoy had said he had “no alternative” because Mr. Puigdemont and his separatist government had pursued an illegal and unilateral path that was “contrary to the normal behavior in any democratic country like ours.”
Undeterred by the government’s threat, and after a bitter debate, separatists in the Catalan Parliament passed a resolution to create “a Catalan republic as an independent state.” Most of the lawmakers opposed to independence walked out of the chamber in protest before the vote.
Since the region’s referendum on Oct. 1, Mr. Puigdemont had been squeezed in a tightening vice of his own creation, and seemed at times to contradict his own declarations as he squirmed for a way out.
On the one hand, the inexperienced, former small city mayor was trapped between demands from Catalan hard-liners to declare independence, and on the other by a stiffening response from a Rajoy government determined to preserve the nation’s constitution and territorial integrity.
Despite pleas for mediation, he and his region’s independence bid were shunned and condemned, not only by the Madrid central government but also European Union officials wary of encouraging similarly minded secessionist movements around the Continent.
European leaders made clear on Friday that they would not be recognizing Catalan independence and would support Mr. Rajoy, as leader of one of the bloc’s most important member states. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, wrote in a Twitter post that “nothing changes” and “Spain remains our only interlocutor.”
Searching for a compromise, Mr. Puigdemont came close on Thursday to calling early regional elections — which Mr. Rajoy has said he, too, wouldnow call within six months — in hopes of forestalling the drastic measures approved by the Spanish Senate on Friday and preserving Catalonia’s autonomy.
But Madrid would offer no guarantee that it would not clamp down on the region, Mr. Puigdemont said, as he immediately faced a revolt in his own ranks from secessionist die-hards who called him a traitor.
After hours of wavering on Thursday, he relented and threw the decision on independence to Catalan lawmakers, who took the fateful plunge on Friday.
Addressing the Catalan Parliament in Spanish, Carlos Carrizosa, a lawmaker from Ciudadanos, a party that opposes secession, told Mr. Puigdemont and separatist lawmakers that, far from creating a new Catalan republic, “you will go down in history for having fractured Catalonia and for sinking the institutions of Catalonia.”
In front of the assembly, he tore apart a copy of the independence resolution. “Your job is not to promise unrealizable dreams but to improve the daily lives of people,” he said.
Before the independence vote, Marta Rovira, a separatist lawmaker, told the assembly that “today we start on a new path” to build “a better country.” She added: “We are creating a country free of repression.”
Catalan lawmakers who voted for independence could face prosecution for sedition, or even rebellion.
Marta Ribas, a Catalan lawmaker, said that Madrid’s use of Article 155 was unjustified, but also argued that “it’s a mistake to respond to one outrageous act with another outrageous act.”
She added: “A declaration of independence won’t protect us from the 155, quite the contrary.”
In the streets outside Parliament in Barcelona, not far from a boisterous pro-independence rally, a few Catalans quietly expressed similar frustrations.
The Oct. 1 referendum did not give the Catalan government the legitimacy to vote to secede, said Federico Escolar, 53, a cafe owner.
“Most of the people who would have voted no did not participate,” Mr. Escolar said, while smoking a cigarette outside his cafe. “It was not a proper referendum. It was illegal.”
Walking into a nearby subway station, Christina Juana, a 38-year-old social worker, agreed.
“Neither Puigdemont nor the Catalan government knows exactly what the Catalan people’s opinion is,” Ms. Juana said.
Before the Catalan Parliament’s vote for independence on Friday, large crowds had gathered outside in anticipation of what they hoped would be a historic day for Catalonia.
Many were draped in flags as they watched the parliamentary debate on two large screens, cheering during speeches by pro-independence lawmakers and hissing those of their opponents. When proceedings hit a lull, the crowds cycled through a series of pro-independence chants.
“Spanish occupiers!” was one, a reference to the national police officers who tried to stop the Oct. 1 referendum by force. “Leave Catalonia!”
“I feel very, very happy,” said Emili Ara, a 79-year-old retired realtor, who said he had hoped for Catalan independence for most of his life, even in the days when the concept had little widespread appeal.
“The people living here, both those who voted yes and those who voted no, will be able to see their sons and grandsons enjoy a much better future,” he added.
The optimism of Mr. Ara and his family was not dented by the prospect of the Spanish government’s moving to take over administration of the region.
“We have to declare independence even if we end up with less autonomy than we have now,” said Eulalia Ara, Mr. Ara’s 39-year-old daughter. “We can’t continue in this situation because we are being repressed by the Spanish state.”
And even “if they steal our Parliament and our government,” said Jordi Ara, Mr. Ara’s 18-year-old grandson, “we will still have our beliefs!”
Elsewhere in the crowd, separatist protesters saw little problem with declaring independence even though less than 43 percent of voters had participated in the referendum.
“Two months ago, I would have said that 43 percent was not enough,” said Ester Romero, 25, a sales manager who had come to the rally after picking up her degree certificate.
“But after all the oppression, after all the police hitting people during the referendum, it’s enough.”
David Meseguer contributed reporting.
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