Photographer: Juanjo Perez Monclus/Bloomberg

Rajoy Starts Crackdown as Catalans Call Vote on Independence

  • Catalan assembly approves framework for disputed referendum
  • Opposition lawmakers abandon regional chamber in protest

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy promised legal proceedings against separatist leaders in Catalonia as the regional assembly approved the legal framework for a referendum on independence, an outright challenge to the Spanish state.

Rajoy will ask the Constitutional Court to invalidate the Catalan referendum law and consider criminal charges against Speaker Carme Forcadell and others involved in advancing the legislation. State prosecutors in Catalonia will also seek charges against Forcadell and her colleagues on the parliamentary council who allowed the bill to go forward.

Carles Puigdemont, right, signs a decree calling independence referendum, Sept. 6.

Photographer: Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images

The bill passed with the support of 72 out of 135 Catalan lawmakers at about 9:30 p.m. in Barcelona on Wednesday, with most opposition deputies abandoning the chamber in protest before the vote. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont later signed a decree calling the referendum for Oct. 1. The Spanish cabinet will meet Thursday in Madrid to discuss its next move.

“We’ve seen democracy take a kicking,” Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said as she announced the legal measures earlier on Wednesday. “We will protect the law in Spain and democracy in Catalonia.”

The prime minister will hold meetings Thursday with Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Socialist opposition, and Albert Rivera, the head of Ciudadanos, the biggest party in Catalonia that backs remaining part of Spain. Meanwhile in Barcelona, the plenary is holding a session. Forcadell, the speaker, said on her Twitter account that the parliament had also accepted for debate another bill setting out steps for the potential transition to independence.

“It calls to mind the legislative powers of the old Soviet Union,” Pablo Casado, a spokesman for Rajoy’s People’s Party, said in an interview with RNE radio. “We are responding to a coup. Not only are we defending the constitution, we are also defending the autonomy of Catalans.”

The separatists’ challenge to Spain’s 1978 constitution is starting to firm up. Rajoy has vowed to block any independence vote and now has to show that the central government has the power to enforce Spanish court decisions in the rebel region.

“This will test the legal and political structures of the state in a way that we haven’t seen for decades,” said Josep Maria Castella, a constitutional law professor at Barcelona University. “This is a flagrant breach of the constitutional order which marks the point of no-return for the separatist movement.”

Read more: Catalan History of Grievance Leaves a Divided Spain: QuickTake

The standoff hit markets on Wednesday, with Aena SA, which owns Barcelona’s El Prat airport, posting its biggest decline in more than six months and CaixaBank SA, the region’s largest lender, also dropping.

The Wednesday night vote ended a day of high drama in Barcelona, with separatist lawmakers gathered in the chamber singing the Catalan anthem.

“For us today’s debate isn’t about legality but legitimacy,” said Anna Gabriel, a lawmaker for anarchist group CUP, a junior partner in the separatist alliance. “Today the institutions are fulfilling their mandate from the people.”

Stalling Tactics

The debate was scheduled by the parliamentary council in an emergency meeting called overnight and published on the official web site, without the proper signature, shortly before the debate began. As her opponents were trying to stall the process using procedural tactics, Forcadell limited the time for debating amendments to just three hours. At one point, lawmakers claimed they were being asked to vote on an amendment they hadn’t read and the speaker’s aides hurriedly handed out photocopies of the text.

“Never before have lawmakers in this parliament been asked to vote on a bill that has been published in secret,” said Carlos Carrizosa, a lawmaker of Ciudadanos, the largest group opposing the independence push. “You are damaging the rights of everyone in the chamber.”

The constitutional court has several tools to enforce its decisions, including incremental fines on the officials who refuse to comply with its rulings or suspending them. The government also has the power to suspend the regional government’s powers as a last measure.

But the Catalan government has signaled it may not respect the authority of the Spanish institutions. Forcadell filed a request with the Constitutional Court Wednesday for its judges to recuse themselves from any decisions relating to the independence campaign, saying their ties to the central government mean they can’t be impartial.

The public accounts watchdog, which is independent from the central government under the Spanish constitution, launched its own offensive against the separatist movement.

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