Spanish Prime Minister To Remove Catalonia’s Government From Power

Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy has said he will act to remove Catalonia's pro-independence leadership from power.

Spanish and Catalan Flags

In the latest move to push back against the results of this month’s Catalan independence vote, the Prime Minister of Spain has announced that he will invoke the provisions of the Spanish Constitution allowing for removal of the regional government in Barcelona, a step that could make the current standoff even tenser:

MADRID — In a first for Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced on Saturday that he would remove the separatist government of the independence-minded region of Catalonia and initiate a process of direct rule from Madrid.

The announcement, made after an emergency cabinet meeting, was an unexpectedly forceful attempt to stop a yearslong drive for secession in Catalonia, which staged a highly controversial independence referendum on Oct. 1., even after it was declared illegal by the Spanish government and courts.

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.

But the moves were immediately condemned by Catalan leaders and thrust Spain into uncharted waters as the prime minister tried to put down the gravest constitutional crisis his country has faced since embracing democracy after the death of its dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.

It would be the first time that the central government in Madrid has stripped 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.

Mr. Rajoy said the Catalan government had never offered real dialogue with the central government in Madrid but had instead tried to impose its secessionist project on Catalan citizens and the rest of the country in violation of Spain’s Constitution.

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 he planned to remove the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, and the rest of his separatist administration from office.

The central government was also poised to take charge of Catalonia’s autonomous police force.

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.

However, it’s unclear how such elections would be organized and whether they would significantly change Catalonia’s political landscape, let alone help to resolve the territorial conflict.

In fact, the steps announced by Mr. Rajoy run a serious risk of further inflaming an already volatile atmosphere in Catalonia, where tens of thousands braved Spanish national police wielding truncheons to vote for independence during the barred Oct. 1 referendum.

Mr. Puigdemont is expected to lead 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.

Josep Lluís Cleries, a Catalan senator, told reporters on Saturday that Mr. Rajoy’s decision showed that “the Spain of today is not democratic because what he has said is a return to the year 1975,” referring to Franco’s death. Mr. Rajoy, he added, was suspending not autonomy in Catalonia but democracy.

Oriol Junqueras, the region’s deputy leader, said in a tweet that it was “facing totalitarianism” and called on citizens to join the Barcelona protest on Saturday.

Significantly, Iñigo Urkullu, the leader of the Basque region, which also has a long history of separatism, described the measures as “disproportionate and extreme,” writing on Twitter that they would “dynamite the bridges” to any dialogue.

As noted, the basis for Rajoy’s actions is Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, a provision that allows the central government to step in and take control of regional governments under almost any circumstance:

The article allows the government to intervene in one of Spain’s regions if its autonomous government “fails to fulfill the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of Spain.”

It is such a broad instrument that its use has been considered only once before, in 1989, when Felipe González, the Socialist prime minister, threatened to wield it against the Canary Islands to force it to comply with tax obligations.

The second part of Article 155 calls upon the government to “issue instructions” to restore constitutional order, which is why legal experts are also now debating how Mr. Rajoy’s government could use Article 155 to seize back power in Catalonia if faced with a full-blown insurrection.

Given the lack of precedent, however, Mr. Rajoy starts with a blank canvas. He could make Article 155 as broad or narrow as he wishes, as well as keep its measures in place for as long as he deems necessary.

One option may be to use it to suspend from office Catalonia’s political leadership, starting with Mr. Puigdemont, but also including other lawmakers and to dissolve the Catalan Parliament to force early elections.

Mr. Rajoy and his government could also suspend other Catalan officials across the region’s public administration, from the leadership of the Catalan autonomous police force to the directorship of the Catalan public television and radio broadcaster.

In order for action under Article 155 to proceed, Prime Minister Rajoy must receive approval from the Senate, the upper chamber of Spain’s Parliament. While Rajoy is leading a minority government, his party does hold a majority of seats in the Senate and several opposition parties have said that they will support the government’s invocation of Article 155  with regard to the Catalan situation. This means that approval from the Senate should come rather quickly. At that point, it will be up to Rajoy and his cabinet to decide how to proceed. As noted, the most significant step they could take would be to charge the leaders of Catalonia with sedition and other charges and seek to replace them with officials appointed by the central government in Madrid. Taking that step, though, is likely to create even more tension in the region and could lead Catalan leaders to attempt to set up a “government” of their own that would purport to act on behalf of an independent Catalonia. Where things go from there would likely depend on how far Madrid is willing to go to enforce the provisions of Article 155  and attempt to bring an end to the independence movement.

Where things go from here, then, depend on a number of unanswered questions. How far are the pro-independence authorities in Barcelona willing to go in this matter? Are they truly serious about independence or is this just part of a populist appeal on their part in an effort to enhance their own political position? And what about Prime Minister Rajoy? He seems to have the support of Parliament in his actions, but will that last if the situation in Barcelona spins out of control, especially since it would be relatively easy for the rest Spain’s political parties to force new elections if they wanted to? And how will the people of Catalonia, and more generally of Spain, react if the central government does move to remove the Catalan leadership and try them for sedition? The answers to all these questions could unfold very rapidly and would have serious implications for the future in Spain.



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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.