The Spanish Senate was due to vote on the Madrid government’s unprecedented plans to seize control of the autonomous region of Catalonia on Friday, as the crisis over the province’s bid for independence comes to a head.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy plans to dissolve the Catalan parliament under a never-before-used article of the country’s constitution, vowing to remove the region’s elected leaders as soon as possible and hold new elections.
The Senate — where Rajoy’s Popular Party has a majority — must first approve the measures, drawn up under Article 155 of the constitution.
Addressing the Senate, Rajoy said the rule of law had been “stomped on” in Catalonia and warned of a fracturing of society. “Exceptional measures need to be adopted when there are no other ways to go back to normality,” he said.
Those measures are “not against Catalonia but aiming to stop Catalonia being abused,” he said. “Not to suspend the autonomy of Catalonia but to consolidate it; not to cut back rights but to restore them to legality. What’s threatening Catalonia is not Article 155 but the behavior of the government of Catalonia.”
Meanwhile, members of Catalonia’s regional Parliament will continue a contentious debate Friday in Barcelona, the regional capital, on the best way forward.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont on Thursday backed away from a plan to call new elections himself, amid disagreement within his own party and pressure from opposing sides. Instead, he put the ball back in the court of the regional Parliament.
The standoff between Barcelona and the Spanish government began when Catalonia held an independence referendum on October 1, in defiance of a court ban. Madrid slammed the referendum as illegal, but Catalan leaders took its results as a mandate for independence, plunging Spain into its worst political crisis since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s.
In a public statement made after a day of confusion in Barcelona, Puigdemont said he had considered the option of dissolving the regional Parliament and calling new elections.
But he had rejected the idea, he said Thursday, apparently because he could not obtain guarantees from the central government that it would not press ahead with a plan to impose direct rule on the region.
“My obligation and responsibility is to explore all the possibilities, absolutely all of them, to find a solution through dialogue, an agreed solution, to a political conflict that is of a democratic nature,” he said.
In a sign of the divisions within the regional government’s ranks, Catalan business minister Santi Vila — seen as a moderate who favored calling elections — resigned Thursday.
Catalan mayors were expected to voice their support for the Parliament on Friday as lawmakers debate their options.
Pro-independence protesters also gathered outside the Catalan Parliament, some holding the Catalan flag. Many Catalan separatists have been angered by the Madrid government’s response to the crisis.
Under the plan proposed by Rajoy, Puigdemont, his vice president and ministers would be suspended and replaced by the administration in Madrid, where necessary, and new regional elections would be held within six months.
Two Spanish opposition parties, PSOE and Ciudadanos, have said they will back the Article 155 measures, according to Rajoy.
Three amendments put forward by PSOE before Friday’s debate could soften their impact, however. One amendment would allow Article 155 still to be suspended if new elections are called, while another would block a proposal to take control of the public media in Catalonia.
It’s not yet clear how quickly the measures would be implemented after the Senate approves the application of Article 155.