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A fateful choice for Catalonia’s independence leader

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Catalan President Carles Puigdemont speaks during a statement at the Palau Generalitat in Barcelona, Spain, today. Puigdemont asked regional lawmakers to review a referendum won by supporters of independence from Spain on Oct. 1.

BARCELONA >> Having gone ahead with last Sunday’s independence referendum, the separatist leader of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, now faces some fateful decisions.

He must decide whether to put the result, which he says was overwhelmingly in favor of separation, before the Catalan parliament for a vote on a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain.

Such a step would deepen the constitutional crisis for Spain, which considers the referendum illegal. It is also likely to provoke a much broader crackdown from the central government in Madrid than last Sunday’s, when the Spanish police clashed violently with voters as officers confiscated ballot boxes.

Puigdemont could also be suspended from office by Madrid and face sedition charges.

For hard-line separatists, however, Puigdemont would almost certainly be seen as a traitor if he failed to make the result binding, even though only about two-fifths of the Catalan electorate cast ballots.

In deciding how to respond, the Spanish government was given ample cover Oct. 3 by King Felipe VI. In a televised address to the nation, he condemned the Catalans’ “inadmissible disloyalty” to Spain’s unity and constitution.

The Catalan separatists had “put themselves completely on the sidelines of the law and democracy,” Felipe said, and were threatening Spain’s economic and social stability with their “irresponsible conduct.”

The monarch made no reference to Sunday’s referendum, the strike and street rallies that followed, or the violent crackdown by the national police to suppress the vote. He also made no mention of possible dialogue with separatists.

Felipe’s tough words were mostly welcomed by Spanish politicians as a strong defense of the constitutional order, as well as a mandate for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to take every emergency measure needed to stop Catalan separatism in its tracks.

But Irene Montero, a lawmaker from the far-left Podemos Party, said she was very disappointed that Felipe left out “millions of Spaniards” who believed in a negotiated settlement with Catalan separatists.

“I would have hoped that he would have defended civil rights and the need for dialogue,” Montero said on Spanish national television this morning.

Faced with the threat of a Catalan republic, Felipe reacted as a monarch not willing to lose part of his territory, Ernesto Ekaizer, a newspaper columnist, told Catalan television.

“The speech was one-way,” he added, to allow “Mr. Rajoy to reestablish legality” in Catalonia.

Madrid’s administrative seizure of Catalonia could also have ripple effects in other parts of Spain that have a long history of political and cultural separatism. It also threatens to stir a fierce backlash in Catalonia, even though separatists have so far always fallen short of a majority of votes in regional elections.

Under Article 155 of Spain’s Constitution, which has not been previously used, Rajoy’s government can seize full administrative control of Catalonia.

The constitution does not detail how far the crackdown could stretch or for how long. But the emergency measures at Rajoy’s disposal could range from the suspension of Catalonia’s politicians and its regional parliament to the suspension of the Catalan autonomous police, as well as the Catalan television and radio broadcaster.

Rajoy could then appoint a new political leadership in Catalonia, for as long as he deems necessary, before calling new regional elections. The Spanish government’s current delegate in Catalonia is Enric Millo, but separatists this week demanded his resignation for condoning the police crackdown on voters, which left hundreds injured.

It is also unclear how far Rajoy would want to apply Article 155 in a climate of street protests. Perhaps the most sensitive issue would be how Madrid would deploy the Spanish police to substitute for officers of the Mossos d’Esquadra, Catalonia’s autonomous police force.

Adding to last weekend’s tensions among Spain’s security forces, a judge from Spain’s national court on Wednesday summoned Josep Lluís Trapero, Catalonia’s police chief, for questioning over why he had not stopped protesters from surrounding a government building filled with Spanish police officers two weeks ago, after the police had detained government officials.

Trapero could even be charged with sedition.

Given Rajoy’s legal powers to stop the separatists from violating Spain’s Constitution, Puigdemont must consider whether to provoke Rajoy into a full seizure of Catalonia — or try instead to declare independence first, which could alienate more moderate separatists who are concerned about escalating the conflict with Madrid.

Any declaration of independence would have to be voted on first in the Catalan parliament, where separatist parties since 2015 have formed a fragile coalition, which holds 72 of the 135 seats.

Rajoy, meanwhile, is in charge of a minority government and is under pressure from the Ciudadanos Party — his ally in the national parliament and a party founded to oppose Catalan secessionism — to remove Puigdemont as soon as possible.

While unlikely to smooth relations between Madrid and Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, Felipe’s intervention could also have helped rally Spain’s opposition parties around Rajoy at a time when the Socialists have been ambivalent about how far the crackdown on Catalonia’s government should stretch.

Margarita Robles, the parliamentary spokeswoman of the Socialist Party, told Rajoy today to take full responsibility for his handling of Catalonia. Rajoy is “paid to govern, not to look into the rearview mirror to see what the opposition does,” she told a conference.

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