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Spain expected to impose Catalonia direct rule

People hold candles and a Catalan pro-independence "Estelada" flag during a demonstration in Barcelona against the arrest of two Catalan separatist leaders on October 17, 2017.Image copyright AFP
Image caption Catalonia’s independence referendum has thrown the country into crisis

The Spanish government is holding a special cabinet meeting to approve measures to take direct control of the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia.

The meeting comes almost three weeks after the region held a controversial independence referendum, which was ruled illegal by the supreme court.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont argues that the referendum result gave him a mandate to pursue independence.

But Spain’s government disagrees and is preparing to take back power.

How did we get here?

Catalonia’s regional government held a referendum on 1 October to ask residents of the region if they wanted to break away from Spain.

Of the 43% of Catalans said to have taken part, 90% voted in favour of independence. But many anti-independence supporters boycotted the ballot, arguing it was not valid.

Mr Puigdemont and other regional leaders then signed a declaration of independence, but immediately suspended it in order to allow for talks.

He then defied two deadlines set by the national government to clarify Catalonia’s position, and the government announced it would pursue Article 155.

What is Article 155?

Article 155 of the Spanish constitution allows the national government to impose direct rule over Spain’s semi-autonomous regions in the event of a crisis. It has never before been invoked in democratic Spain.

It says that if a region’s government “acts in a way that seriously threatens the general interest of Spain”, Madrid can “take necessary measures to oblige it forcibly to comply”.

Catalonia currently enjoys significant autonomy from Spain, including control over its own policing, education and healthcare.

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Media captionWhy is there a Catalan crisis? The answer is in its past

But the Spanish cabinet is now expected to recommend dissolving Catalonia’s government and holding elections in January, as well as taking control of the region’s 16,000-strong police force.

After Saturday’s cabinet meeting, the steps will be debated by a Senate committee before a final vote. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party (PP) holds a majority in the Senate, meaning the proposals are likely to pass.

What are the economic arguments?

Catalonia accounts for about a fifth of Spain’s economic output, and supporters of independence say the region contributes too much to the national economy.

Opponents argue that Catalonia is stronger as a part of Spain, and that breaking away would lead to economic disaster for the country as a whole.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is meeting with his cabinet on Saturday

Nearly 1,200 companies based in Catalonia have re-registered in other parts of Spain since the referendum, hoping to minimise instability, according to the AFP news agency.

And Spain this week cut its national growth forecast for 2018 from 2.6% to 2.3%, blaming uncertainty over the future of Catalan independence.

Could Spain’s steps backfire?

James Badcock, BBC News, Madrid

The dissolution of Catalonia’s parliament and the holding of snap regional elections may appear to offer a way of defusing today’s state of extreme tension, but there are plenty of reasons to doubt that such a strategy would provide a clear solution to the crisis.

The far-left CUP party has suggested that it would boycott any election imposed on the region. Other pro-independence forces might do the same. Massive street protests against any form of direct rule from Madrid can also be expected.

Mr Puigdemont has promised to call a formal vote on independence in Catalonia’s parliament if Article 155 is invoked. If such a declaration were approved, the pro-independence forces could style the ballot as the election of a constituent assembly for a new republic, the next stage laid down in the pro-independence road map.

Assuming the participation of all parties, voters would be bound to interpret the election as a de facto vote on independence. If a separatist majority emerged once again, it is hard to see how the conflict could be considered closed.

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