- - Thursday, October 19, 2017

With the deadline passing for the Catalan regional government to retract its independence bid, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy formally announced today that his government was “activating” constitutional provisions to establish direct rule on the rebellious region.

“May no one doubt that the government will use all means at its disposal to restore the legality and constitutional order as soon as possible and stop the economic deterioration caused by the instability generated by those responsible for the regional government of Catalonia,” said chief Spanish government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo in a statement read out before the congress.

Mr. Rajoy will meet with his cabinet and security chiefs on Saturday to decide how to employ emergency powers to replace regional authorities, a plan to be formally presented Monday at the Senate, where Mr. Rajoy’s center-right People’s Party has a majority.

The announcement follows a tense standoff between Mr. Rajoy and Catalan President Carles Puigdemont that has consumed the country ever since the Catalan leader announced the results from a controversial Oct. 1 independence referendum that the central government considered illegal.

With many Catalans boycotting the chaotic vote, pro-independence forces said they had won a clear majority to take Spain’s richest region on the path to independence.

In a letter exchange with Mr. Rajoy, Mr. Puigdemont refused to give a clear answer on whether and when independence would be declared, sparking mounting frustration in Madrid. Under enormous pressure on all sides, Mr. Puigdemont appeared to be trying to force the central government to make the first move.

“If the [central government] persists in blocking dialogue and the repression continues, the parliament of Catalonia will proceed, if deemed appropriate, to vote on the formal declaration of independence,” Mr. Puigdemont’s letter said, in an English translation provided by the Catalan government.

In response, Albert Rivera, leader of the center-right Ciudadanos party, which supports Mr. Rajoy’s minority government, said “the government should apply Article 155 as the situation demands, regardless of the letters.”

But Mr. Rajoy also depends on the backing of parliamentary factions from Spain’s Basque region and the Canary Islands that are more reluctant to take a hard line and create precedents for the suspension of regional powers.

The opposition Social Democrats and many analysts here were hoping that Mr. Puigdemont would call for regional elections in Catalonia in a bid to defuse the crisis, head off a clash over direct rule and open room for political negotiations.

But the showdown assumed characteristics of a hostage siege on Thursday when the Catalan president made written threats to submit independence for a vote in the Catalan parliament the moment Mr. Rajoy invoked the constitutional provision on direct powers.

“They are holding the constitution hostage,” said a ruling Popular Party lawmaker. “No democracy can accept that kind of blackmail.”

Mr. Puigdemont is under pressure from radical Catalan separatist groups, on whom he depends for much of his grass-roots organizing and for the narrow majority he holds in the Catalan parliament, to declare independence instantly. His chief deputy in the separatist coalition, Oriol Junqueras of the Catalan Republican Left party, has said that a formal vote on independence is “imminent.”

Independence supporters banging pots and waving the Catalan flag filled Barcelona’s streets again this week following the imprisonment of two separatist leaders accused of “sedition” after a court hearing Tuesday.

Sedition charges are also being filed against Mr. Puigdemont, according to sources in Spain’s security services, who say that arrest orders could be issued against him once he is officially removed as Catalonia’s regional president.

Under the constitution, the government would also formalize its control over the Catalan governments’s financial accounts, which it has been managing since a police raid on the regional economy ministry a month ago. Spain’s interior ministry would also take control of the Catalan police, the Mossos D’Esquadra, in what may be the riskiest part of the central government’s plan. Some units that are controlled by separatist activists could refuse to cooperate or even mutiny.

Catalan Police Chief Josep Lluis Trapero, who appeared before a judge to face charges of dereliction of duty this week, was met by a cheering crowd of policemen when he returned to his headquarters following the hearing.

“We can make Catalonia ungovernable,” said a spokesman for the Catalan National Assembly, whose leader, Jordi Sanchez, was among those arrested this week. “Spain cannot withstand that in the long term.”

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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