Sacked Catalan leader welcome to participate in December polls, says Spain

Some people on bikes ride wrapped in Spanish and Catalan flags during a demonstration calling for unity in Barcelona.
Some people on bikes ride wrapped in Spanish and Catalan flags during a demonstration calling for unity in Barcelona. PHOTO: AFP

BARCELONA (AFP, REUTERS) - The Spanish government has said it will welcome the participation of sacked Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont in elections scheduled in December. 

A central government spokesman in Madrid, Mr Inigo Mendez de Vigo, said Mr Puigdemont had the right to continue in politics, despite his removal from office. "I'm quite sure that if Puigdemont takes part in these elections, he can exercise this democratic opposition," he said.

"The Catalans will be able to say what they feel about what they've been seeing in this last year, with all sorts of failing the law, abusing the law and putting themselves outside the law," he added.

Pro-unity protesters will gather in Catalonia's capital Barcelona on Sunday (Oct 29), two days after lawmakers voted to split the wealthy region from Spain, plunging the country into an unprecedented political crisis.

As Madrid moved to quash the independence bid, Mr  Puigdemont was defiant on Saturday, calling for "democratic opposition" to the central government's seizure of regional power.

Mr Puigdemont accused Madrid of trampling on the will of independence-seeking Catalans with the first curtailment of regional autonomy since General Francisco Franco's brutal 1939-75 dictatorship.

Spain is on a knife edge as it grapples with its worst constitutional crisis in decades, triggered by an unlawful Catalan independence referendum on Oct 1 that was shunned by many and marred by police violence.

Throwing down the gauntlet on Friday, Catalan lawmakers passed a motion, by 70 votes out of 135 in the secessionist-majority regional Parliament, to declare the region of 7.5 million people independent from Spain.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy responded by deposing the regional government, dissolving its Parliament, imposing direct rule and calling Dec 21 elections to replace them.

Mr Rajoy's intervention was "contrary to the will expressed by the citizens of our country", Mr Puigdemont said in a statement that he signed as "President of the Generalitat (government) of Catalonia".

Barcelona readied for Sunday's anti-independence march under the slogan: "Catalonia is all of us!"

The rally is due to kick off at noon near where tens of thousands of people celebrated the new "republic" with song, wine and fireworks just two days earlier.

Organisers of Sunday's gathering had assembled hundreds of thousands of people for a similar protest in the city on Oct 8.

Participants will include representatives of three Catalan opposition parties - including Mr Rajoy's conservative Popular Party - in what may amount to the start of an election campaign.

Mr Rajoy drew sweeping powers, approved by the Senate, under a never-before-used constitutional article designed to rein in rebels among Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions.

He used these to axe Mr Puigdemont, his deputy, regional ministers, heads of departments, and the chief of police.

The move has angered some Catalans.

Analysts warn of trouble next week as civil servants, resuming work after the weekend's political turmoil, may refuse orders from caretaker bosses sent from Madrid.

Far-left supporters of Mr Puigdemont have threatened "mass civil disobedience" if Mr Rajoy carries out the power grab, but have yet to announce any plans.

Mr Rajoy's deputy, Ms Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, was put in charge on Saturday of administering the rebel region.

Mr Puigdemont, in reply, vowed to continue "to work to build a free country".

He urged opponents of Madrid's intervention to act "without violence, without insults, in an inclusive way" - and to respect the views of pro-unionists.

In Madrid, several thousand people gathered on the central Plaza Colon on Saturday, waving the Spanish flag as loudspeakers blared the popular song "Y viva Espana" (long live Spain).

Many of those assembled blamed Mr Puigdemont for dragging Spain into the long-running crisis, and called for him to be jailed.

Prosecutors announced on Friday they will file charges of rebellion against Mr Puigdemont next week. He risks 30 years in jail.

On the sporting front, Spanish champions Real Madrid were headed into the fray on Sunday as they travelled to Girona, a heartland of pro-independence support.

Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane insisted on Saturday that "it's a league game we're going to play tomorrow, and that's it. You have to think about the game, not the context".

Roughly the size of Belgium, the region accounts for about 16 per cent of Spain's population, a fifth of its economic output, and attracts more tourists than anywhere else in the country.

Before the crisis, it enjoyed considerable autonomy, with control over education, healthcare and policing.

While fiercely protective of their language, culture and autonomy, Catalans are deeply divided on independence, according to polls.

The Spanish government has the support of the United States and allies in a secession-wary European Union still reeling from Britain's decision to leave its fold.

Many fear the economic impact as the standoff drags on, with some 1,700 companies having moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia so far.

The region's economic output is equivalent to that of Portugal.