Spanish riot police swings a club against would-be voters near a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Spanish riot police have forcefully removed a few hundred would-be voters from several polling stations in Barcelona. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Spain Gives Ultimatum to Catalonia
By Ciaran Giles & Aritz Parra
Madrid -- Spanish authorities gave Catalonia's separatist leader five days to explain whether his ambiguous statement on secession was a formal declaration of independence and warned Wednesday that his answer dictated whether they would apply never-used constitutional powers to curtail the region's autonomy.
Threatening to invoke a section of the Spanish Constitution to assert control over the country's rogue region, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Catalan president Carles Puigdemont's response to the central government's ultimatum would be crucial in deciding ``events over the coming days.''
Puigdemont announced on Tuesday that he was using the victory in a banned Oct. 1 referendum to proceed with a declaration of Catalan independence, but proposed freezing its implementation for a few weeks to allow for dialogue and mediation with the government in Madrid.
His equivocal position seemed designed to appease the most fervent separatists, but also to build support _both in Catalonia and internationally _ by provoking another tough response from Rajoy's Cabinet. Spanish police used force to try to stop the referendum vote, producing images that elicited sympathy for the separatists.
Speaking in the national parliament in Madrid on Wednesday, Rajoy said the referendum Catalonia's regional parliament and Puigdemont's government held in violation of a court order was illegal and part of a strategy ``to impose independence that few want and is good for nobody.''
The ensuing crisis, he said, was ``one of the most difficult times in our recent history.''
Rajoy, whose government has been under fire for the police violence, blamed the Catalan separatists for inciting recent street protests and said that ``nobody can be proud of the image'' Spain has projected to the rest of the world with the referendum.
Lawyers, civil society groups and politicians in Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain have offered to mediate between the two sides, but the prime minister rejected the offers. He said he refused to engage in dialogue with a disobeying Catalan government.
``There is no possible mediation between democratic law and disobedience and unlawfulness,'' Rajoy said, throwing the ball back to the Barcelona-based Catalan authorities for the next move.
If Puigdemont replies before Monday that he indeed proclaimed independence with his Tuesday announcement, he would have three more days to rectify the situation, according to a formal demand submitted by the central government Wednesday. That would mean abandoning implementation of the declaration Catalan separatist lawmakers signed establishing a new Catalan republic, the government said.
A refusal to backtrack or providing no response will lead Madrid to trigger Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows central authorities to take some or total control of any of the country' 17 regions if they rebel or don't comply with their legal obligations.
The warning issued Wednesday was the first step required before Rajoy's Cabinet can invoke the article for approval from the Senate, where Rajoy's ruling Popular Party has an absolute majority.
The measure has never been invoked during the nearly four decades since the 1978 Constitution restored democracy in post-dictatorship Spain.
The central government ``wants to offer certainty to citizens,'' Rajoy said, adding that it was ``necessary to return tranquility and calm.''
There was no immediate response by Catalan authorities.
Marta Rivas, a regional lawmaker with the Catalonia Si Que es Pot anti-establishment party, warned that applying Article 155 to curb the region's autonomy could backfire and produce more protests.
``If the Spanish state repeats its actions and enforces the clause, we will be in full confrontation with the state,'' Rivas said.
About 2.3 million Catalans _ or 43 per cent of the electorate in the northeastern region _ voted in the independence referendum. Regional authorities say 90 per cent were in favour of secession and declared the results valid. Opponents of the referendum being held had said they would boycott the vote.
Rajoy's government previously had refused to grant Catalonia permission to hold a referendum on the grounds that it would only poll a portion of Spain's 46 million residents and was therefore unconstitutional.
A window to change the law that authorizes regional referendums only with the central government's approval opened Wednesday. Opposition Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez announced that he was backing Rajoy's efforts to quell the Catalan separatists' defiance, but said the premier had agreed to open talks on amending the constitution in six months.
The deal between the Socialists and Rajoy's People's Party primarily is aimed at appeasing the Catalans by reforming the system that governs all the autonomous regions. Many regions _ Catalonia most of all _ regard the system as outdated.
In Catalonia, the decades-long desire for more self-governance has evolved into a growing push to break the region's century-old ties with Spain. The separatist camp swelled during the country's recent economic crisis and with Madrid's repeated rejection of the region's attempts to strengthen self-rule.
Sanchez said his party would nevertheless strive to change the current regional arrangements to ``allow for Catalonia to remain a part of Spain.''
On the streets of Barcelona, residents followed developments closely.
``They both keep on repeating the same things,'' resident Alicia Gallego said, referring to Rajoy and Puigdemont.
``The best would be if they could sit down and make some clarity and decide something, maybe a bit more autonomy. I don't know. I am not a politician,'' she said. ``But it is clear that this must have a more reasonable solution.''
Another Barcelona resident, Jose Alfaro, said he does not expect any decisive developments to happen any time soon.
``There is enough time to reopen dialogue. Now we are starting a new chapter,'' he said. ``We have to wait and see. I don't think that in the short term something will happen.''
Aritz Parra reported from Barcelona, Spain. Paolo Santalucia in Barcelona contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story has been corrected to say that Catalonia is a region, not a province.
The Canadian Press & the Associated Press. All rights are reserved.
Thousands Demand That Gov't & Catalan Leaders Negotiate
By Joseph Wilson
Barcelona, Spain -- Thousands rallied in Madrid and Barcelona on Saturday in a last-ditch call for Spanish and Catalan leaders to stave off a national crisis amid Catalonia's threat to secede.
The rallies in the Spanish capital and the Catalan city were held with the slogan ``Shall We Talk?'' in an effort to push lawmakers in both cities to end months of silence and start negotiating. Attendees respected the organizers' call to not bring the Spanish or Catalan flag.
Catalonia's regional president Carles Puigdemont has vowed to make good on the results of last Sunday's disputed referendum on secession won by the Yes side. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned that the vote was illegal and has promised that Catalonia is going nowhere.
Protestors packed Barcelona's Sant Jaume Square where the Catalan government has its presidential palace, shouting ``We want to talk!'' and holding signs saying ``More Negotiation, Less Testosterone!'' and ``Talk or Resign!''
``We have to find a new way forward,'' said Miquel Iceta, the leader of Spain's Socialist party in Catalonia. ``It's the moment to listen to the people who are asking for the problem to be solved through an agreement, and without precipitated and unilateral decisions.''
The gathering around Madrid's Cibeles fountain boasted a huge banner demanding that leaders start talking. Some people chanted ``Less hate, and more understanding!''
In a separate rally in Madrid's Colon Square, thousands clamoured for the unity of Spain and against any attempt by the northeastern region to break away. The crowd bristled with Spanish flags. Pro-union forces will try to generate momentum on Sunday in a protest in Barcelona.
Other protests asking for dialogue were held in cities including Valencia, Bilbao, Pamplona and Sanitago de Compostela, news agency Europa Press reported.
The calls for dialogue and unity come after a traumatic week, with riot police storming several polling stations in an unsuccessful attempt to impede the referendum. Instead, hundreds of voters were left in need of medical attention.
Even though 2.2 million Catalan voted _ with 90 per cent backing independence_ the referendum polled less than half of the region's electorate. Puigdemont declared he would seek a declaration of independence in the regional parliament anyway.
The bloodied vote was followed by a strike on Tuesday across Catalonia to protest the police violence. Then came the stern message from Spain's King Felipe VI that the Catalan government and parliament were breaking the law.
Puigdemont and his separatist supporters were struck a blow when Catalonia's top two banks, CaixaBank and Banco Sabadell, as well as energy giant Gas Natural announced they were relocating their headquarters from Catalonia to other parts of Spain.
Other companies are considering such a move to ensure that the region's possible secession wouldn't knock them out of the European Union and its lucrative common market.
Spain's Minister of Public Works Inigo de la Serna said on Saturday that ``the companies will keep leaving and it's exclusively the fault of the members of the regional government.''
The warnings by the business sector have coincided with the first calls from within Puigdemont's government to hold off on a declaration of independence.
Santi Vila, Catalonia's regional chief for business, told Cadena SER Radio late Friday that he's pushing for ``a new opportunity for dialogue'' with Spanish authorities.
``We have to give it one more chance, maybe the last chance, and perhaps the only way that can happen is to start with a cease-fire,'' Vila said.
Vila said he would like to see Spanish authorities return powers to the region which they have assumed in recent weeks, including control of a large part of its finances.
It is unclear how widespread Vila's moderate position is inside the Catalan government, which is being pressured by separatist grassroots groups and the far-left party CUP to declare independence soon.
Separatist lawmakers had planned to discuss a secession plan on Monday, but that session in the regional parliament was suspended by the constitutional Court.
The focus has shifted to Tuesday, when Puigdemont is set to address the regional parliament ``to report on the current political situation.''
The most recent polls taken before the referendum showed that the region's 7.5 million residents were roughly split on the issue.
The Canadian Press. All rights are reserved.
Overwhelming Majority of Catalans Vote for Independence
The overwhelming majority of Catalans who participated in the banned referendum have voted in favor of independence from Spain, according to Cataln government officials.
Over two million Catalans, or 90.9 percent of those who voted said ‘Yes’ in Sunday's referendum, regional authorities said. Only 7.87 percent, or 176,565 voters voted ‘No’ when asked if they want to attain independence from Madrid.
The Catalan government said the result reflects only the ballots that “were not seized” during police raids on polling stations throughout the day.
Of Catalonia’s 5.34 million voters, this represents a turnout of around 42.3 percent, excluding those whose ballots were confiscated and people who were prevented from voting by police.
A Cataln government board member said that the massive police crackdown “prevented” an estimated 770,000 people from voting.
He said out of the 844 people that suffered injuries from police brutality during the vote, 74 have already filed official complaints.
Another Catalan representative was quoted as saying,“All the repression falls absolutely on the side of the government of Rajoy and the police forces that have been brought in for this purpose.”
At least 844 people were injured on Sunday after being attacked by police as they were exercising their democratic right to vote. At the same time least 33 officers were injured in clashes with voters, the Spanish interior ministry announced.
After polling stations in Catalonia closed, Spain's Prime Minister announced that “no referendum” took place in the country, claiming the majority of Catalans “obeyed the law” and did not want to participate in the independence vote after Madrid branded it “illegal” and issued a poll ban. Rajoy praised officers for “performing their duty,” while the Spanish foreign minister called the police response “proportionate.”