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Spain Invokes Constitutional Order to Retain Control Over Breakaway Catalan State

Whether or not the country can repair itself in the wake of this historic break remains to be seen.
Photograph courtesy of The New York Times

Photograph courtesy of The New York Times

Today, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his parliament declared independence from Spain, nearly a month after the historic referendum, and in response, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the parliament in his central government voted to enact Article 155 by a vote of 214-47, a rarely used provision of the Spanish Constitution to take over the Catalan government. In full, the article reads:

"If a Self-governing Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution...or acts in a way that is...prejudicial to the general interest of Spain, the Government, after having lodged a complaint with the President of the Self-governing Community and failed to receive satisfaction therefore, may...take all measures necessary to compel the Community to meet said obligations, or to protect the above-mentioned general interest."

An immediate result of the article will be a new election, to be held at a later date in Catalonia, if and when it can be negotiated. Rajoy could also order the arrest of President Puigdemont for sedition. 

Previously, Rajoy said he would consider suspending this drastic measure if Catalonia agreed to hold a snap election that would represent a greater percentage of the population's feelings on independence, since only 42% of Catalans voted in the initial referendum. Puigdemont rejected the proposal, claiming that "there were not enough guarantees" that the central government would withhold enacting Article 155. 

The relationship between Catalan and the Central Government, has frayed over the last month, as Puigdemont appeared close to declaring independence several times before backing off at the last minute. Rajoy's actions, which included blocking people's access to the polls to vote and detaining key separatist advocates, have been criticized by human rights advocates, and even used as propaganda to support the Catalan separatists on Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik.

In the Catalan parliament, where Puigdemont's separatist party holds little more than half of the 135 seats, tensions ran high between them and the anti-separatist Ciduadanos party. Ciudadanos member Carlos Carrizo warned Puigdemont that if they went through with their plans to declare independence, they would "go down in history for having fractured Catalonia and for sinking the institutions of Catalonia...Your job is not to promise unrealizable dreams but to improve the daily lives of people." Alejandro Fernández, who represents Rajoy's Popular Party, called Puigdemont's movement "textbook populism."

Such words did not deter Mr. Puigdemont and the members of his party, as they voted for independence while anti-secessionists left the chamber. “We shall constitute the Catalan Republic as an independent, and sovereign, democratic and social state of law," the declaration, long-awaited by those who supported it, reads. 

Some were thrilled by Catalan's declaration, such as WikiLeaks's Julian Assange, who had been part of the disinformation campaign from Russian outlets: 

Putin has not yet reacted to the measures, but it is surely no coincidence that his ally, politician Dimitri Medoyev, was in Catalonia this week to open an office promoting "bilateral relations on humanitarian and cultural issues." Medoyev represents South Osietta, a republic that broke away from Georgia in the 90s and is only recognized by a handful of states, including Russia.

As for Mariano Rajoy, who has urged the Spanish public to remain calm on Twitter, the time for making nice with his enemies is over. 

“The word dialogue is a lovely word. It creates good feelings,” he said in his address to Parliament. “But dialogue has two enemies: those who abuse, ignore and forget the laws, and those who only want to listen to themselves, who do not want to understand the other party.”

UPDATE: PM Mariano Rajoy has fired President Puigdemont and dissolved his cabinet. For more on this story, follow it here on Bloomberg

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