Madrid eyes Catalan elections in January as solution to crisis

Warning of backlash against Spanish government decision to use direct rule

A demonstrator holds up an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) during a gathering in Barcelona. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

A demonstrator holds up an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) during a gathering in Barcelona. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

 

The Spanish government on Saturday takes its first steps towards introducing direct rule in Catalonia, and as part of that initiative is considering calling elections in the region early next year in a bid to defuse the political crisis.

On Thursday the government of Mariano Rajoy said it was going to trigger article 155 of the constitution, which allows it to take control of any region with autonomous powers deemed to be acting outside the law. The decision follows the refusal by Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to abandon his plans to lead the region to independence.

On Saturday Mr Rajoy will hold an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the implementation of the controversial clause, which has never been used before.

Article 155 must be approved by the senate, where Mr Rajoy’s Popular Party has a majority, and the house could vote as soon as the end of the month. The measure also has the support of two opposition parties, Ciudadanos and the Socialists, which have been discussing with the government how exactly to impose direct rule.

On Friday, Carmen Calvo, who has been representing the Socialists in those talks, told La Sexta television that article 155 “does not have a punitive or interventionist dimension, it is simply intended to return the situation to constitutional normality, calm Catalan society … and call elections as soon as possible.”

She also suggested that its use could see Madrid take control of the Catalan police force and regional broadcaster TV3.

Spanish government spokesman Íñigo Méndez de Vigo was also keen to play down the reach of the measure, saying on Friday that “the application of article 155 does not mean suspending the autonomy of Catalonia”. Although he added that it was “evident that this process will culminate in elections”, Mr Méndez de Vigo said it was too early to say when they would be held.

However, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera said the government has agreed to stage the regional elections in January.

Deeply counterproductive

Despite the reassuring tone of the main parties in Madrid, the Catalan independence movement is warning that article 155 will be provocative and deeply counterproductive.

The former Catalan president Artur Mas told Ara newspaper that the measure will be “a disaster”.

“If they put into effect [article] 155, they know how they will go in, but not how to get out again,” said Mr Mas, the politician who put Catalan independence on the Spanish political agenda five years ago.

“Do they think that [Catalonia] will just take this lying down?” he added. “That’s incredibly naive.”

A large demonstration has already been called in Barcelona for this afternoon, by Òmnium Cultural and the Catalan National Assembly, two leading pro-independence organisations whose leaders, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez, were jailed on charges of sedition on Monday, pending investigation.

The imminent triggering of article 155 will be the focus of today’s protest, as well as the jailing of the two men.

On Monday, pro-independence party representatives are due to meet in the Catalan parliament to discuss their response to the Spanish government’s latest move.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont announced the region’s right to independence last week but immediately said his proclamation would not yet come into effect. However, the triggering of article 155 could change that, and Monday’s meeting could see the separatist parties schedule a parliamentary session to formalise independence.

On Friday, many Catalans protested in a symbolic way by withdrawing exactly €155 from their bank accounts. Many did so as a reprisal against CaixaBank and Sabadell, two Catalan lenders that, along with an estimated 900 companies, have moved their legal headquarters out of the region in recent weeks because of the political turmoil.