Spain took drastic measures on Saturday to stop Catalonia from breaking away, announcing plans to dismiss its separatist government and call fresh elections in a move the region’s leader compared to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and his ministers — who sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades by holding a banned independence referendum — will be stripped of their jobs and their ministries taken over under measures laid out by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
After hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded Barcelona’s streets earlier on Saturday to show their anger at Madrid, Puigdemont said Rajoy was guilty of “the worst attack on institutions and Catalan people” since Franco, calling for the parliament of the semi-autonomous region to meet urgently.
Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist from 1939 to his death in 1975, and among other repressive measures took Catalonia’s powers away and banned the official use of Catalan language.
Cautious, though, Puigdemont did not once say the word “independence” as Spain and the rest of the European Union waits to see if he will carry out his threat to declare a breakaway state.
Barcelona police said 450,000 people joined a protest in the regional capital earlier, many chanting “freedom” and “independence” and waving Catalonia’s yellow, red and blue separatist flag.
Madrid could take direct control over Catalonia’s police force and replace its public media chiefs, with Rajoy saying he had no other choice, faced with a grave threat to Spain’s national unity.
Elections for the semi-autonomous region must be called within six months, he added.
The measures must now pass through the Senate — a process that will take about a week — but Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party (PP) holds a majority there and his efforts to prevent a break-up of Spain have the backing of other major parties.
The Catalonia crisis could cause a “dangerous dislocation”, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the Journal du Dimanche, adding that he hoped the elections would “clarify the situation.”