Spain calls on Catalans to respect its decision to impose direct rule

Foreign minister says government is trying to reinstate order in Catalonia following unilateral independence referendum.

The Spanish government has called on people in Catalonia to respect its decision to strip the Catalan government of its autonomy and impose direct rule from Madrid as it embarks on an unprecedented attempt to prevent the region from seceding.

On Saturday, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said he was invoking article 155 of the constitution to “restore the rule of law, coexistence and the economic recovery and to ensure that elections could be held in normal circumstances”.

The move, which prompted anger across Catalonia, has escalated Spain’s deepest constitutional crisis since the restoration of democracy in 1977.

Speaking on Sunday, Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, said the government was trying, “reluctantly”, to reinstate order in Catalonia following the unilateral independence referendum held on 1 October.

“We are going to establish the authorities who are going to rule the day-to-day affairs of Catalonia according to the Catalan laws and norms,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

“I hope everyone will disregard whatever instructions [the current Catalan government] will be planning to give because they will not have the legal authority to do that.”

Dastis also defended the Spanish police’s actions as they tried to halt the referendum even though other members of the government have already apologised for the violent scenes witnessed as officers raided polling stations, charged the crowds with batons and fired rubber bullets.

“I think by now many of those pictures have been proven to be fake pictures,” he said. “If there was any use of force, it was a limited one and prompted by the fact that the law and order agencies were prevented from discharging the orders of the courts.

“I’m not saying that all [of them] are fake pictures but some of them are and there have been a lot of alternative facts and fake news here. As I said, if there was at all – and according to the pictures there was – some use of force, it was not a deliberate use of force. It was a provoked use of force.”

Pending almost certain approval in the senate on Friday, direct rule will be imposed next weekend. Citing the Catalan government’s “conscious and systematic rebellion and disobedience”, Rajoy said Carles Puigdemont’s administration would be stripped of its powers and its functions would be assumed by the relevant ministries in Madrid.

The Catalan president will not be empowered to call elections, which Rajoy said he hoped would be held within six months. “We are not ending Catalan autonomy but we are relieving of their duties those who have acted outside the law,” he said.

Rajoy did not go into details of how article 155 would be applied but a government statement said: “A series of measures will be introduced regarding sensitive issues such as security and public order, financial management, taxation, the budget and telecommunications.”

In an address on Catalan television on Saturday night Puigdemont, speaking in Catalan, Spanish and English, described the move as the worst attack on Catalonia’s institutions since General Franco’s dictatorship between 1939 and 1975, under which regional autonomy was dissolved.

He said: “We cannot accept these attacks. Those who have scorned the Catalans now want to govern us. I will ask parliament to decide how to respond to these attacks on democracy and to act accordingly.”

Over recent years the Catalan government has been creating the structures of a parallel state in readiness for independence. It has expanded the inland revenue department, as well as other parts of the regional administration, and established “embassies” in a number of foreign capitals. Under article 155, it is likely that all of this will be dismantled.

Rajoy has the support of most of the opposition, King Felipe and the EU, whose leaders gave him their backing at Friday’s European council meeting.

While Rajoy insists article 155 does not imply suspending autonomy, this is not how the move will be seen in Catalonia and 450,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona on Saturday to demonstrate against direct rule.

Puigdemont and other members of his government attended the rally amid fears that the hitherto peaceful movement could turn violent. Direct rule is a recipe for civil disobedience and hugely increases the scope for conflict. The thousands of Spanish civil guards and national police drafted in for the referendum are still stationed in Catalonia.

The deadline for Puigdemont to clarify whether he had declared independence passed last Thursday. The Catalan president declined to answer yes or no and threatened to issue a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) if the government invoked article 155. Spain’s attorney general said that if Puigdemont issued a UDI he would be charged with “rebellion”, a charge that carries a maximum 30-year sentence.

Puigdemont says Catalonia has earned the moral right to make a UDI after some 90% voted yes to independence in the unofficial referendum. However, only 43% of voters turned out, roughly equivalent to the percentage of Catalans who favour independence, according to opinion polls. There is still time for Puigdemont to call an election, in which case article 155 would be suspended, so long as he also disavows the UDI.

A poll published in El Periódico newspaper on Saturday showed there is 68% support for fresh elections. However, Puigdemont’s PdeCAT party has not benefited from the independence push and continues to slump in opinion polls.

On Sunday, the Catalan government spokesman, Jordi Turull, said fresh elections were “not on the table”.