MADRID/BARCELONA • Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took the first step yesterday towards suspending Catalonia's political autonomy and ruling the region directly to thwart a push for independence.
He demanded the regional government clarify whether it considered itself independent following a speech by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont early yesterday.
This requirement is a necessary step before triggering Article 155 of the Constitution, which would allow Madrid to suspend the region's political autonomy.
Mr Rajoy's move could deepen the confrontation between Madrid and Catalonia but it also signals a way out of Spain's biggest political crisis since a failed coup in 1981.
The Prime Minister would likely call a snap regional election after activating the constitutional mechanism allowing him to do so.
Mr Puigdemont made a symbolic declaration of independence from Spain but then immediately suspended it and called for talks with the government in Madrid.
"The Cabinet has agreed this morning to formally request the Catalan government to confirm whether it has declared the independence of Catalonia, regardless of the deliberate confusion created over its implementation," Mr Rajoy said in a televised address.
Without giving a specific deadline for the Catalan government to reply, Mr Rajoy said: "The answer from the Catalan President will determine future events, in the next few days." It is not yet clear if and when the Catalan government would answer the requirement but it now faces a conundrum, political analysts say.
If Mr Puigdemont says he did declare independence, the government would likely trigger Article 155. If he says he did not declare it, then far-left party CUP would likely withdraw its support to his minority government.
"Rajoy has two objectives: if Puigdemont remains ambiguous, the pro-independence movement will get more fragmented; if Puigdemont insists on defending independence, then Rajoy will be able to apply Article 155," said Mr Antonio Barroso, deputy director of the London-based research firm Teneo Intelligence. "Either way, Rajoy's aim would be to first restore the rule of law in Catalonia and this could at some point lead to early elections in the region".
Socialist opposition leader Pedro Sanchez said he would back Mr Rajoy if he had to activate Article 155, adding that he had agreed with the Prime Minister to start a constitutional reform within six months to discuss how Catalonia could fit better in Spain.
"The agreement which I have with the Prime Minister is that we open the political road, the road of constitutional reform," Mr Pedro Sanchez told reporters.
The debate over constitutional reform would focus on "how Catalonia remains in Spain, and not how it leaves", he added.
Mr Sanchez said a commission would be set up in Parliament to study the distribution of powers between the central government and Spain's regions over a period of six months. This would be followed by a revision of the 1978 Constitution, with a view to offering a new model of relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, he added.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE