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Spain readies to impose direct rule as Catalonia fights back

People listened to the radio near the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona, waiting to learn if the political crisis could be resolved
PAU BARRENA (AFP)
Thousands of activists gathered outside the Catalan parliament to add their voice to the push

Spain's premier urged senators Friday to impose direct rule on Catalonia, where separatists fought back with a proposed independence bid.

As a months-long standoff between Spain and the rebel region comes to a head, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asked lawmakers to "proceed to the dismissal of the president of the Catalan government, his vice-president and all regional ministers."

In response, Catalan separatist parties filed a draft resolution in the regional parliament, due to meet later, to "declare Catalonia an independent state in the form of a republic."

Thousands of activists gathered outside the Catalan parliament to add their voice to the push for a break with Spain.

Roughly the size of Belgium, Catalonia accounts for about 16 percent of Spain's population and a fifth of its economic output.

LLUIS GENE (AFP/File)

In Madrid, the senate was poised to vote Friday on measures under Article 155 of the constitution to depose Catalonia's secessionist government before the week is out, after the region held an unlawful independence referendum on October 1.

Rajoy sought to place the blame for Spain's worst political crisis in decades squarely on the shoulders of Catalonia's separatist leader Carles Puigdemont.

The steps were not aimed against Catalonia, the premier insisted, but "to prevent abuse of Catalonia" by its own leaders.

"What threatens Catalonia today is not Article 155, but the attitude of the Generalitat" -- the regional government, said Rajoy -- who received a standing ovation.

'History will judge'

"History will judge not only... the abuses and illegalities we are witnessing in Catalonia, but also those of us responsible for coming up with a response."

Spain and Catalonia have been locked in a constitutional crisis since a "Yes" vote in the unregulated plebiscite which separatist leaders hold up as a popular mandate for independence for the semi-autonomous region of 7.5 million people.

Only about 43 percent of voters turned out, with many anti-secessionists staying away and others prevented from casting their ballot by Spanish police in a crackdown that turned violent.

RAYMOND ROIG (AFP/File)

Based on the vote, Puigdemont threatened to declare independence.

Madrid has turned to Article 155 of the constitution -- a never-before-used provision designed to rein in rebels among Spain's 17 regions, which enjoy varying levels of autonomy.

Rajoy said Puigdemont had plenty of time to back off, and his failure to do so "is what forced the government to go ahead with this process... It was he who decided that the process under Article 155 of the constitution will continue, he and he alone."

Puigdemont, who opted Thursday not to call regional elections that may have kept Madrid at arm's lenth, has warned that any power seizure would escalate the crisis.

Historic day?

Instead, he left it up to the regional parliament "to determine the consequences" of the threatened takeover -- thus leaving the door open for a possible independence push.

Dozens of activists gathered in Barcelona, some sporting pro-independence banners, to send a message to lawmakers inside.

For Lluisa Pahisa, a 65-year-old municipal councillor, this "could be a historic day for Catalonia" -- the day a republic is declared.

"I woke up with a lot of enthusiasm," she told AFP, but added: "Until I see it done, I won't believe it."

Measures drawn up under Article 155 are set to enter into force on Saturday, and will see the central government temporarily seize control of Catalonia's civil service, police, purse, and public broadcaster.

The measures would remain in place until elections for a new regional parliament.

JORGE GUERRERO                       (AFP/File)

The move is likely to anger Catalans, fiercely protective of their language, culture and autonomy, even if divided on independence from Spain.

The far-left CUP party which backs Puigdemont has already threatened "massive civil disobedience."

Albert Botran, a CUP lawmaker, vowed Friday to "make it difficult for the new, illegitimate government."

"The first action will be resistance," he told Catalonia Radio.

Fears for Catalonia's economy have increased as uncertainty persists over the independence drive, with some 1,600 companies having moved their legal headquarters out of the region in recent weeks.

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