Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced that he plans to remove the leadership of the regional government in Catalonia and will call for new elections in January. The moves are guaranteed to escalate the secession crisis in Catalonia, which voted for independence from the Spanish government three weeks ago.
The effort to remove Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his cabinet must be approved by the Spanish Senate.
In Barcelona today, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets demonstrating for independence.
The rally unfolded just hours after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced his government would invoke rarely used constitutional powers to remove Catalonia’s leaders.
Demonstrators shouted, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” and “Rajoy, Rajoy, so you know we are leaving!”
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont was among the protest crowd, which police estimated at 450,000 people. He was scheduled to speak later Saturday.
The unprecedented constitutional measures — intended to end Catalan leaders’ independence bid — fall under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution and would have to be sent to the Spanish Senate for approval. This would happen within the next week, Rajoy said.
Rajoy tried to explain the risky move:
Under the measures proposed Saturday by Rajoy, Puigdemont, his vice president and ministers would be suspended and replaced by the administration in Madrid, where necessary.
“The government had to enforce Article 155. It wasn’t our desire, nor our intention. It never was,” Rajoy said. “But in this situation, no government of any democratic country can accept that the law is ignored.”
In undertaking these steps, the government has four goals, Rajoy said. These are: to return to legality; to restore normality and coexistence in Catalonia; to continue the region’s economic recovery; and to hold elections under normal conditions.
“The autonomy is not suspended, nor the government,” he said. “People are removed who put the government outside the law, outside the constitution and outside statutes.”
New elections should be called for Catalonia within six months, Rajoy said, adding that he wants it to happen as soon as possible.
Rajoy is walking a political tightrope. On the one hand, he is being pressured by opposition parties and many in his government to come down hard on Puigdemont. But by playing hardball, he risks provoking the Catalans into declaring independence openly, which would cause legal complications and force a crackdown that could become violent. It’s also possible that Rajoy’s moves could alienate Catalans who are currently on the fence about their loyalties to Madrid or their region.
Puigdemont wants talks. Rajoy currently doesn’t have that luxury. A showdown is brewing that, if the Catalans are serious about declaring independence, could lead to street violence not seen in Spain for decades.