Jordi protest: Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, third from left, joins a demonstration in Barcelona after the jailing of pro-independence leaders Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart. Picture: REUTERS
Jordi protest: Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, third from left, joins a demonstration in Barcelona after the jailing of pro-independence leaders Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart. Picture: REUTERS

Barcelona - Catalonia’s separatists were planning their response on Sunday after Spain took drastic steps to stop the region breaking away by dissolving its separatist government and forcing new elections.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and his regional executive — who sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades by holding a banned independence referendum on October 1 — will be stripped of their jobs and their ministries taken over under measures announced on Saturday by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

"Yesterday, there was a fully-fledged coup against Catalan institutions," Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull said on Sunday.

"What happens now, with everyone in agreement and unity, is that we will announce what we will do and how," Turull told Catalunya Radio.

Rajoy has taken Spain into uncharted legal waters by moving to wrest back powers from the semi-autonomous region, which could see Madrid take control of the Catalan police force and replace its public media chiefs.

The move sparked outrage among separatists, with nearly half-a-million taking to the streets of regional capital Barcelona and Puigdemont declaring Rajoy guilty of "the worst attack on institutions and Catalan people" since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Among other repressive measures, Franco — who ruled from 1939 until 1975 — took Catalonia’s powers away and banned official use of the Catalan language.

Although Catalans are deeply split on whether to break away from Spain, autonomy remains a sensitive issue in the northeastern region of 7.5-million people, which fiercely defends its language and culture and has previously enjoyed control over its policing, education and healthcare. Rajoy said he had no choice but to force Puigdemont out as he refused to drop his threat to declare independence after a referendum that had been declared unconstitutional.

Responding to accusations of a "coup", Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis retorted: "If there is a coup d’etat, it is one that has been followed by Mr Puigdemont and his government. What we are doing is following strictly the provisions of our constitution," he told the BBC.

Spain’s senate is set to approve the measures by the end of the week. Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party holds a majority in the upper house, while other major parties also back his efforts to prevent a break-up of the nation.

In a crisis that has sent jitters through one of Spain’s most important regional economies and rattled the stock markets, Rajoy has ordered fresh elections to be called within six months of the senate hearing, which would see polls held by mid-June at the latest.

Separatist parties of all political stripes have dominated the Catalan parliament since the last elections in 2015, holding 72 seats out of 135.

Ahead of a meeting of Catalan parties on Monday to set a date for a session of the regional parliament to debate the next steps, Turull insisted that elections were "not on the table".

Political analysts warned Rajoy faced a struggle to impose control over the region.

"The problem is that you have to govern Catalonia with the active opposition of a large part of the population," said analyst Jose Fernandez-Albertos.

Asked if Puigdemont would be arrested if he showed up for work, Dastis tried to strike a reassuring tone.

"We are not going to arrest anyone," he said, dismissing the idea of the army having to be brought in to enforce order.

But he warned that if Puigdemont’s government kept trying to give orders, "they will be equal to any group of rebels trying to impose their own arbitrariness on the people of Catalonia".

AFP

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