Showdown between Spain and Catalonia headed to crunch

Aritz Parra
Associated Press

Barcelona, Spain — The standoff between Spain and Catalonia over the wealthy region’s bid to secede went down to the wire Thursday, as the Spanish government prepared to strip away Catalan regional powers after its separatist leader scrapped hopes of early elections that might have ended the country’s worst political crisis in decades.

After weeks of mounting antagonism, Catalan officials had initially indicated regional President Carles Puigdemont was preparing to announce a snap election for December — a vote that had been the Spanish government’s idea as a way of ending the deadlock.

But as news of Puigdemont’s plan spread, angry student demonstrators waving separatist flags and calling him a traitor marched to the gates of the government palace in Barcelona. Even some of Puigdemont’s political allies called him a coward for not unilaterally declaring independence in the face of Spain’s resistance.

Then, in a hastily called address, Puigdemont said he had decided not to call a vote because the Spanish government did not provide enough assurance that it would suspend what he termed its “abusive” measures to assume control of Catalonia.

“There is no guarantee that would justify the holding of elections,” he said.

The crunch will come Friday when the Spanish Senate in Madrid gives the go ahead to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s plan to use Article 155 of the country’s constitution to remove or limit self-rule in Catalonia.

It would be an unprecedented intervention by the central government in the affairs of one of the country’s 17 autonomous regions and would likely fan the flames of Catalan revolt.

“The application of Article 155 represents an aggression … without precedent,” Lluis Corominas, spokesman for Puigdemont’s Democratic Party of Catalonia, told Catalan lawmakers. “Tomorrow what we will propose is that our answer to Article 155 is going forward with the mandate of the people of Catalonia.”

He was referring to the sentiment among the Catalan pro-independence coalition that it has a mandate to secede unilaterally since declaring a landslide victory in a banned independence referendum earlier this month.

Separatist lawmakers were set to negotiate how to make their declaration of independence during a meeting of the regional parliament on Friday, an official with the ruling coalition who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, told The Associated Press.

The ruling coalition has a reputation, however, for squabbling over how to proceed on the contentious issue.

At the same time, not all Catalans are keen on breaking away from Spain, with polls showing they are roughly evenly split. And while those who voted in the Oct. 1 independence referendum were overwhelmingly in favor, less than half of eligible voters went to the polls in a vote that had been outlawed by Spain’s Constitutional Court and was marred by police violence trying to stop it.

In the weeks since the Oct. 1 vote, more than 1,500 businesses have moved their official headquarters out of Catalonia to ensure they could continue operating under European Union laws if Catalonia secedes.

During Thursday’s protest in Barcelona, not all the demonstrators were in favor of independence.

Martina Gallego, 17, said that while she didn’t want Catalonia to secede, she also objected strongly to how the Spanish government is treating the region.

“They are taking all our rights of autonomy away,” she said. “I’m not in favor of independence, but I don’t think this is right.”

Watching the protest unfold from afar, 31 year-old Barcelona resident Emilio Verdies, lamented what he called too much complaint and too little dialogue.

“Both governments, from Catalonia and Spain, should meet and try to fix the current situation,” he said, adding that talks should center on Catalans’ “being able to decide our future.”

Catalonia’s independence bid has led to Spain’s deepest political crisis in the four decades since the country restored democratic rule after Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

And it was far from clear whether an early election would resolve Spain’s problems with the prosperous region of 7.5 million people. Polls show pro-independence parties would likely maintain their slim advantage in parliamentary seats but would not get more than 50 percent of the vote.