Spanish prime minister takes steps to invoke Article 155, oust Catalan President Carles Puigdemont
In an impassioned address, Spain's prime minister urged the Senate on Friday to grant his government special constitutional measures that would allow it to take control of Catalonia's autonomous powers and halt the region's independence bid.
But in Barcelona, the main city in Catalonia, separatist lawmakers in the regional parliament voted to break away from Spain and establish an independent republic. Thousands of independence supporters gathered near the parliament building in the northeastern city in anticipation of that historic declaration.
Separatist lawmakers erupted in applause as the vote was approved with 70 votes in favor of an independent Catalan Republic, 10 against and two blank ballots out of a total 135 members. Most opposition lawmakers had left the chamber in protest moments before the vote.
The motion calls for beginning an independence process that includes drafting Catalonia's new top laws and opening negotiations "on equal footing" with Spanish authorities to establish co-operation.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appealed for calm in a tweet posted minutes after the Catalan vote.
"I ask for calm from all Spaniards. The rule of law will restore legality in Catalonia," Rajoy wrote.
Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy makes his speech at the Senate in Madrid. Rajoy appealed Friday to the country's Senate to grant special constitutional measures that would allow the central government to take control of Catalonia's autonomous powers to try to halt the region's independence bid. (Paul White/Associated Press)
Earlier, Rajoy received sustained applause before and after his speech in the Senate in Madrid, telling the chamber that Spain was facing a challenge not seen in its recent history.
What is happening in Catalonia is "a clear violation of the laws, of democracy, of the rights of all, and that has consequences," he said.
Rajoy said his conservative government's first move would be to dismiss Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his regional ministers if the Senate approves the Spanish government's use of Article 155 of the Constitution in a vote later Friday.
The special measures, he said, were the only way out of the crisis, adding that Spain wasn't trying to take away liberties from the 7.5 million Catalans but instead trying to protect them.
If Rajoy's measures are granted, it will be the first time in four decades of democratic rule that the national government in Madrid would directly run the affairs of one of Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions, a move that will likely fan the flames of the Catalan revolt.
In Barcelona, about 500 mayors of Catalan towns chanted "independence!" and raised their ceremonial wooden staves in a hall inside the regional parliament shortly before the parliamentary session began.
Demonstrators use fans with Catalan separatist flag colours near the Catalan regional parliament in Barcelona on Friday. (Juan Medina/Reuters)
Ramon Moliner, the mayor of Alp, in the northern Pyrenees region, said Friday was a historic day.
"We are beginning a new chapter as a country, a very uncertain stage in many ways but very exciting," he said.
The proposal for independence was submitted ruling Catalan Together for Yes coalition and their allies in the far-left CUP party.
"Today is the day that many Catalans' long-held desire will be fulfilled, but tomorrow the cruel reality will set in with the Spanish state armed with its interpretation of Article 155," the former speaker of the Catalan parliament Joan Rigol i Roig, told The Associated Press before the vote was held. "We can only hope that the conflict remains in the political realm."
Secessionists hold a slim majority in the Catalan parliament due to Spanish election laws, which give more representation to sparsely populated areas.
Carlos Carrizosa, spokesman for the pro-union Citizens party, the leading opposition party in Catalonia's parliament, ripped a copy of the proposal into pieces during the debate.
"With this paper, you leave those Catalans who don't follow you orphaned without a government. And that's why Citizens won't let you ruin Catalonia," he said.
"Today is a sad, dramatic day in Catalonia. Today is the day that you (secessionists) carry out your coup against the democracy in Spain," Carrizosa added.
Marta Ribas of the leftist Catalonia Yes We Can party said "two grave errors" were being committed Friday.
"First, the Article 155 which will take away our rights and impact all the country. But it is a grave error to respond to that barbarity with an even bigger error," she said. "The unilateral declaration of independence won't protect us against Article 155, you will only make the majority of people suffer."
Large crowds of independence supporters gathered outside in a Barcelona park, waving Catalan flags and chanting slogans in favour of a new state being proclaimed.
"I am here today because we will start the Catalan Republic," said 68-year-old protester Jordi Soler. "Madrid is starting with total repression — and there is no longer any [other] option."
Rajoy says the measures to take over Catalan affairs are aimed at restoring order and has promised to call a new regional election once that is achieved.
Puigdemont scrapped hopes of a possible end to the political deadlock on Thursday when he opted not to call an early election and halt the drift toward independence.
Rajoy's conservative Popular Party has an absolute majority in the Senate, thus guaranteeing the approval of his proposals. But he has also sought support from the country's main opposition parties. It will then be up to the government when to implement the measures taking over the Catalan government.
Catalonia represents a fifth of Spain's gross domestic product and polls show its people roughly evenly divided over independence.