The Madrid government sacked Catalonia’s president and dismissed its parliament on Friday, hours after the region declared itself an independent nation in Spain’s gravest political crisis since the return of democracy four decades ago.
A new regional election will be held in Catalonia on Dec. 21, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in a televised address on a day of high drama.
As well as removing Carles Puigdemont as head of the autonomous region, he also fired its police chief and said central government ministries would take over the Catalan administration.
“Spain is living through a sad day,” Rajoy said. “We believe it is urgent to listen to Catalan citizens, to all of them, so that they can decide their future and nobody can act outside the law on their behalf.”
As he spoke, thousands of independence supporters packed the Sant Jaume Square in front of the Catalan regional headquarters in Barcelona, their earlier joyful mood somewhat dampened by Rajoy’s actions.
In a stunning show of defiance of Madrid, the Catalan parliament had voted in the afternoon to make a unilateral declaration of independence.
Despite the emotions and celebrations inside and outside the building, it was a futile gesture as shortly afterwards the Spanish Senate in Madrid approved the imposition of direct rule.
The crisis has now reached a new and possibly dangerous level as independence supporters have called for a campaign of disobedience. Immediately after news of the vote, Spanish shares and bonds were sold off, reflecting business concern over the turmoil.
“Tensions are likely to rise significantly over the coming days,” Antonio Barroso of Teneo Intelligence said in a note.
Spain was plunged into crisis Friday as Madrid seized power from independence-seeking Catalonia, the first curtailment of regional autonomy since the brutal dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
After regional lawmakers voted to declare a Catalan "republic", Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy moved swiftly to dissolve the rebel government and parliament, and called December 21 elections to replace them.
In an escalating standoff closely watched by secession-wary Europe, Rajoy fired pro-independence leader Carles Puigdemont and all his ministers as well as the director of the regional police, and Catalan envoys to Madrid and Brussels, to halt what he termed an "escalation of disobedience."
Secessionist lawmakers voted 70 to 10 in the 135-member parliament Friday to declare Catalonia "a republic in the form of an independent and sovereign state".
They take their mandate from the "Yes" result in a banned and unregulated October 1 independence referendum spurned by many more than half of Catalan electors.
Observers warned of trouble ahead, with Catalan officials and public servants likely to defy orders from caretaker envoys sent by the central government.
"Tensions are likely to rise significantly over the coming days," suggested Teneo Intelligence, a risk analysis group.
"Demonstrators might try to prevent the police from removing Catalan ministers from their offices... This increases the risk of violent clashes," it said in a statement.