, Barcelona, Spain, Oct 28 – Catalonia’s secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont stood defiant Saturday against Madrid’s moves to depose him, urging “democratic opposition” to direct rule forced on the region to stop it splitting from Spain.
In a televised statement, Puigdemont accused the central government of trampling on the will of independence-seeking Catalans.
Madrid’s decision to seize Catalan powers in response — the first curtailment of regional autonomy since Francisco Franco’s brutal 1939-75 dictatorship — constituted an “aggression”, he added.
The separatist leader said “democratic opposition” was the only way forward, without specifying what form this could take.
Spain remains on a knife edge as it grapples with the worst constitutional crisis in its contemporary history, triggered by the unlawful October 1 referendum.
Throwing down the gauntlet in the escalating standoff, Catalan lawmakers on Friday passed a motion, by 70 votes out of 135 in the regional parliament, to declare a Catalan republic.
Opposition MPs refused even to vote on the issue and walked out in disgust.
The central government’s intervention was “contrary to the will expressed by the citizens of our country at the ballot box,” Puigdemont said. “In a democratic society, only parliaments can appoint or dismiss presidents.”
The central government declined to comment on his speech.
– Sweeping powers –
Rajoy responded to Friday’s independence declaration by axing the Catalan government and parliament and calling for elections to be held on December 21 to replace them.
Josep Lluis Trapero, the highest-ranking officer in Catalonia’s Mossos d’Esquadra police force, was also dismissed.
He drew sweeping powers from a never-before-used constitutional article designed to rein in rebels among Spain’s 17 regions, which enjoy varying levels of autonomy.
In an official government notice published Saturday, Rajoy’s deputy, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, was put in charge of administering the region.
But Puigdemont did not seem to be going anywhere soon, signing his speech as “President of the Generalitat (government) of Catalonia”.
In Madrid, thousands rallied under a giant Spanish flag Saturday, in anger at Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence.
On Sunday a Spanish unity rally is planned in Barcelona for midday (1100 GMT), with organisers hoping for a large turnout not least from Catalans opposed to the independence move.
– ‘Craziness’ –
Also Sunday, in Girona, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of the Catalan capital, another kind of face-off will take place when Real Madrid take on Girona at 1515 GMT.
The match brings together the favourite teams of Rajoy and Puigdemont.
Real Madrid – Spain’s most popular club – have traditionally been seen as representing a positive image of the country to the world since they won the first five European Cups between 1955-1960 during Franco’s rule.
The city of Girona is a hotbed of pro-independence support and Puigdemont’s birthplace — and it will be Real’s first appearance in Catalonia since the violence-marred referendum on independence.
“Real Madrid are, along with the Spanish national team, the team that most represents Spain,” Eduardo Gonzalez Calleja, a professor of contemporary history at Madrid’s Carlos III University and author of an official club history, told AFP.
But Real coach Zinedine Zidane played down the signficance of the European champions’ visit, saying: “I see only one thing, the game tomorrow and nothing else”.
Prosecutors said Friday they would file charges of rebellion against Puigdemont next week. He risks 30 years in jail.
But his lawyer Jaume Alonso Cuevillas described the threat as “craziness”: “The crime of rebellion requires a violent public uprising to take place,” he told AFP.
– ‘More sustained unrest’ –
Pledging “to work to build a free country,” Puigdemont insisted this must be done “without violence, without insults, in an inclusive way,” urging supporters to respect the views of pro-unionists.
Analysts warn, though, that upheaval is likely.
“We are likely to see more sustained unrest, possibly including strikes, as well as more serious clashes between national police and pro-independence activists,” said Federico Santi, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a US-based think-tank.
Roughly the size of Belgium, the region of 7.5 million people accounts for about 16 percent of Spain’s population, a fifth of its economic output, and attracts more tourists than anywhere else in the country.
Before the current crisis, it enjoyed considerable autonomy, with control over education, healthcare and police.
The Spanish government has received unwavering support from the United States and its allies in the European Union, increasingly weary of nationalist and secessionist noises since Britain’s shock decision to leave the bloc.
Many are worried about the economic impact as the standoff drags on, with some 1,700 companies having moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia so far.