Spain starts process to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy

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The Spanish government announced on Thursday that it will start the process to impose direct rule in Catalonia after the region’s leader declined to drop his bid for independence, further escalating what is already the country’s worst political crisis in decades.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who signed a declaration of independence earlier this month but “suspended” the implementation to start a dialogue with Madrid, failed to meet a 10 a.m. deadline to clearly state that his government was not declaring independence.

“As a consequence, the Government of Spain will continue with the procedures outlined in Article 155 of the Constitution to restore legality in Catalonia’s self-government,” the statement said. It said the government will meet on Saturday to determine which steps to take to restore constitutional order.

“[The government] denounces the continuing attitude by those in charge of the [Catalan government] to seek, deliberately and systematically, institutional confrontation despite the serious damage that is being caused to coexistence and the economic structure of Catalonia,” the government said.

Prior to the 10 a.m. deadline, Puigdemont sent a letter to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to warn that the Catalan parliament could vote on a formal declaration of independence if the Spanish government continues to impede dialogue and moves forward with “the repression.”

As Article 155 has never been used before, it’s unclear which measures Madrid will take and how long it may take to transfer powers from Catalonia to Madrid. It’s also highly uncertain whether Puigdemont could enforce a declaration of independence, as Madrid could take control of the region’s police force.

Regardless, Spain is facing its worst political crisis since it became a democracy four decades ago after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

More than 90% of ballots cast during a referendum on October 1 were in favor of independence, but the vote was declared illegal and turnout was only 43%. A police crackdown – in which 893 people were injured – may have decreased turnout as police seized ballot boxes and closed dozens of voting stations.

Catalonia has insisted for weeks that it will seek to implement the results of the vote, even though Spain’s constitution requires that a referendum on sovereignty takes place nationally, not regionally. It allows Madrid to suspend the regional government’s authority or, in the worst case, send in security forces.

Catalonia, which has a total population of 7.6 million people, has long sought independence from Spain. Many of its residents feel that the wealthy region contributes far more to the Spanish economy than it gets back through central government funds.

Earlier this year, former Catalan President Artur Mas was fined 36,500 euros ($40,860) and banned from holding public office for 2 years for organizing a non-binding independence referendum in 2014. The conviction and a recent recession led to a renewed push for independence.

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