Catalonia’s leaders have no divine right to stay in power, Spain’s deputy prime minister asserted Monday, hardening a threat to oust the northeastern region’s independence-minded president as the two sides moved closer to a showdown.
A senior official in Catalonia, meanwhile, sent a new signal of defiance, suggesting that the region’s civil service will keep taking orders from local leaders even if Spain removes the region’s president and his top deputies.
And a far-left Catalan party predicted that the regional police force would also defy orders from Madrid if the central government asserts control.
The spiraling confrontation between Spain’s most affluent region and the central government has rattled European neighbors, spooked corporate leaders and opened up deep political divisions within Catalonia and in the rest of Spain.
As a result of Catalan officials’ refusal to renounce secession aims, Spain has said it will invoke constitutional powers, never before used in the country’s democratic era, to halt the independence drive by imposing direct rule on the region, which until now has had a degree of autonomy.
The Madrid government, backed by court rulings, says an independence referendum held Oct. 1 was illegal. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of secession, but turnout was less than half as many voters obeyed Spanish authorities’ call to stay home.
Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, Spain’s deputy prime minister, on Monday called Catalonia’s secessionist push – and the leaders behind it – illegitimate, saying they “haven’t been put in the role by some divine power.”
"They're completely not in compliance with the constitution and the statute of autonomy,” she told the private Spanish-language broadcaster Onda Cero. “They may be living in some other reality, but the political and legal reality is that they will be removed."
The region’s president, Carles Puigdemont, said the referendum outcome was a mandate to declare independence, but immediately announced he was suspending the result and calling for talks with Madrid. Spain said there could be no dialogue while independence was on the table.
Spain’s Senate is to meet Friday to vote on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s call to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which gives the central government broad authority to administratively take over a region in the event of a serious breach of law.
Spanish officials have not spelled out the details of the takeover plan, but said it could be effective immediately after the Senate vote, and cover such matters as policing and regional finances.
Raul Romeva, Catalonia’s foreign affairs chief, predicted that Catalan institutions would respond with defiance. “It is not a personal decision,” he told BBC radio. “It is a 7-million-person decision” — a reference to the region’s population.
“I have no doubt that all civil servants in Catalonia will keep following the instructions provided by the elected and legitimate institutions that we have right now in place,” Romeva added.
The far-left Catalan Popular Unity Candidacy party, an ardent backer of secession, predicted “massive civil disobedience,” perhaps including regional police officers, if Spain strips the region of its local powers. The party said in a statement that a takeover by Madrid would be considered “an aggression.”
There has been speculation that Puigdemont might try to short-circuit Spain’s takeover plan with a pre-emptive independence declaration. The regional parliament is to meet Thursday to chart its response to Madrid’s warnings that direct rule is in the offing.
Joan Maria Piqué, a spokesman for Catalonia’s regional government, declined Monday to say whether independence would be declared this week, but repeated Puigdemont’s contention that the referendum result made such a course permissible.
“We feel that we’ve got the mandate for the Catalan government to move ahead,” he said.
Puigdemont is facing some internal pressure, though, to try to stave off the takeover by issuing a call for new parliamentary elections before an administrative takeover occurs – a course he and his aides have ruled out.
Some opposition politicians say poor leadership on Puigdemont’s part led to the impasse with Madrid. The leader of the conservative People’s Party of Catalonia, Xavier Garcia Albiol, on Monday blamed the regional president and his top deputies’ “lousy governance” for the crisis.
Staff writer Hennessy-Fiske reported from Barcelona and staff writer King from Washington. Special correspondent James Badcock in Madrid contributed to this report.
1:15 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from a regional government spokesman.
This article was originally published at 7 a.m.