BARCELONA (Reuters) - The Spanish government has urged Catalans to accept Madrid’s decision to dismiss their secessionist leadership and to take control of the restive region, as the nation’s biggest political crisis in decades enters a decisive week.
Spain’s foreign minister made the comment on Sunday, a day after Madrid vowed to take the unprecedented step of firing the Catalonia government, in a last resort to thwart the region’s push for independence and to calm fears of unrest and economic turmoil in the heart of the euro zone.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont rejected Madrid’s decision, to be implemented this week, and thousands of pro-independence protesters marched in Barcelona on Saturday.
The regional parliament’s speaker, Carme Forcadell, said she too would not accept Madrid’s move and accused Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of staging a “coup”.
Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis responded on Sunday with the call to obey Madrid.
“All the government is trying to do, and reluctantly, is to reinstate the legal order, to restore the constitution but also the Catalan rules and proceed from there,” Dastis told BBC TV.
“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 ... I hope everyone will disregard whatever instructions they will be planning to give because they will not have the legal authority to do that.”
However, Dastis sought to calm nerves in the region, saying Madrid would not conduct arrests among the pro-independence leadership, though two prominent secessionists were detained on court order this month on allegations of sedition.
“We are not going to arrest anyone,” he said.
Catalonia’s leaders say they will not accept direct rule imposed by Madrid, raising the prospect that they and their supporters will seek to defy the Spanish government when the time comes to remove them from office.
Rajoy’s use of special constitutional powers still needs Senate approval in a session set for Friday. Once it gains the expected approval, Madrid can take full control of Catalonia’s finances, police and public media and curb the powers of the regional parliament for up to six months, until fresh regional elections.
Street protests for and against independence in Catalonia have involved hundreds of thousands of people. Though a violent crackdown by national police during Catalonia’s Oct. 1 independence vote left hundreds injured, according to regional authorities, the protests have remained peaceful so far.
But Rajoy’s unprecedented plan to use special constitutional powers has angered both sides and raised concern over the potential for unrest if Catalan leaders resist and call for civil disobedience.
They have not done that, but investors are worried about the possible fallout from such moves in a region that makes up a fifth of Spain’s economy. Hundreds of companies have shifted their headquarters outside the region and Madrid has made downward revisions to its economic forecasts.
Mikel Lekue, a 24-year-old Spaniard studying in Barcelona, said he did not support Catalan independence but criticized Rajoy’s tactics in invoking article 155 of the national constitution for the first time to take control of a region.
“I don’t agree with article 155. For all the errors the Catalan government has made, and they have made many, I don’t think the solution is to remove Catalan autonomy,” he said as he walked in central Barcelona with a friend. “I think they need to sit down and talk.”
Rajoy, who acted with backing from King Felipe and the main opposition party in Madrid, said the crisis was jeopardizing political and economic stability in the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy.
Puigdemont, who made a symbolic declaration of independence on Oct. 10 after the referendum, called Rajoy’s move the “worst attacks against the people of Catalonia” since Spain’s military dictatorship.
He stopped short of saying he would make good his threat to push ahead with a parliamentary vote on independence before direct rule takes effect.
But he has called the Catalan parliament to meet next week to agree on a response to Madrid, something many observers said could pave the way for a formal declaration of independence.
The regional assembly is expected to decide on Monday when it will hold a session.
Several influential Catalan newspapers called on Puidgemont on Sunday to resolve the crisis by calling a snap election before direct rule becomes effective.
However, an opinion poll published by the El Periodico newspaper on Sunday showed a snap election would probably have results similar to the last ballot, in 2015, when a coalition of pro-independence parties formed a minority government.
Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull, however, told Catalan radio this was not an option and instead suggested that the parliament could move forward with secession.
“Catalonia will be what decides the parliament, which is the legitimate representative of the citizens, and not what others decide,” Turull said.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper in London and Isla Binnie, Carlos Ruano and Tomas Cobos in Madrid; Editing by Lary King