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Key test for Spain’s direct rule as Catalonia returns to work after declaration of independence

Spain’s chief public prosecutor said his office is seeking charges against Catalonia’s now-deposed leaders suspected of “sedition, embezzlement of funds and abuse of authority”. A court now has to decide whether to accept the charges.

world Updated: Oct 30, 2017 18:30 IST
The Guardian
The Guardian
The Guardian
Spain,Catalonia,Carles Puigdemont
The Spanish flag flies in central Madrid after Catalonia's regional parliament declared independence from Spain in Madrid.(REUTERS)

Spain’s control over Catalonia is being tested on Monday as politicians and civil servants return to work amid uncertainty over whether they will accept direct rule imposed by the central government to stop the region’s independence bid.

On Sunday, the Spanish government said the deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, could be jailed within the next two months over his part in the regional parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence .

The warning came as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona to call for Spanish unity, two days after some Catalan MPs voted to declare independence and the Spanish government assumed control of the region .

Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has sacked Puigdemont and his government and called regional elections for 21 December. In an interview with the Associated Press, the country’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, said Puigdemont could “theoretically” run for re-election if the courts decide he should remain free until then.

Spanish prosecutors said on Friday that they would file charges against Puigdemont of rebellion, a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison. “I don’t know what kind of judicial activity will happen between now and 21 December,” said Dastis. “If he is not put in jail at that time I think he is not ineligible.”

An independence flag flutters outside the Palau Generalitat in Barcelona. ( AP )

However, some of the most prominent members of the Catalan administration, including Puigdemont and the vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, said they did not accept the move and only the people of Catalonia could dismiss them.

“We cannot recognise the coup d’etat against Catalonia, nor any of the anti-democratic decisions,” Junqueras wrote in a Catalan newspaper this weekend.

Early on Monday, Puigdemont posted a picture on Instagram of the inside of the government palace, though it was not clear when the picture had been taken.

Josep Rull, territory and sustainability minister in the Puigdemont administration, tweeted a picture of himself at his desk on Monday morning, writing: “In the office, carrying out the duties entrusted to us by the people of Catalonia.”

He left later on, saying he had gone to attend a party meeting but insisting the ousted government would continue with its agenda.

Carme Forcadell, the pro-independence speaker of the Catalan parliament, also went to work as usual.

The main civic group behind the pro-independence campaign has called for civil disobedience and given detailed instructions to the 200,000 or so Catalan civil servants on how they should behave.

Most of them start their working day at 9am and if many fail to turn up or decide not to accept instructions it would cast doubts over the Spanish government’s strategy to draw a line under a one-month crisis that has dented economic growth and fuelled social unrest.

Several Spanish ministers said at the weekend they were convinced civil servants would obey orders and reminded them that those who did not could lose their jobs.

Pro-Spain union demonstrators dance in front of Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya hours after a rally against Catalonia's declaration of independence, in Barcelona, on October 29, 2017. ( AP )

Spain’s interior ministry named a new Catalan police chief, who has insisted that the 17,000 officers should remain neutral.

Spain’s interior minister, Juan Ignacio Zoido, praised the Mossos for their work in an open letter on Sunday and urged them to accept temporary direction from Madrid.

“We have opened a new chapter, and in this new chapter the Mossos d’Esquadra will become again the police of all the Catalans. This is your duty,” Zoido said in the letter.

Another test of the government’s response will be whether companies stop relocating out of Catalonia in search of stability and legal certainty after several hundred firms moved out earlier this month.

The government’s move to impose direct rule received the backing of several influential Catalan business lobbies who called on firms to stay in the region.

With its own language and distinct culture, Catalonia accounts for about 16% of Spain’s population and a fifth of the country’s economy.

The crisis was sparked by a referendum on 1 October in which Catalans voted massively in favour of the region, which already enjoys considerable autonomy, breaking away.

Turnout was only 43% – separatists say a heavy-handed Spanish police operation prevented it from being higher – and Rajoy’s government declared it illegal.

After Friday’s declaration of independence, Catalan lawmakers hugged and sang the Catalan anthem. The session was beamed on to giant screens outside and a crowd of 15,000 cheered every “yes” vote.

On Sunday, it was the turn of supporters of a united Spain, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets not of Madrid but of the Catalan capital, Barcelona, waving national and European flags and chanting “Viva Espana”.

Municipal police said the crowd numbered about 300,000 while organisers said 1.3 million turned out and the central government’s representative in Catalonia put the figure at 1 million.

First Published: Oct 30, 2017 18:05 IST