BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 12: Thousands gather in Barcelona for a Spanish National Day Rally on October 12, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. Spain marked its National Day with a show of unity by opponents of Catalonian independence, a day after the central government gave the region's separatist leader Carles Puigdemont until next week to clarify whether he intends to push ahead with separation. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***
A rally in Barcelona in opposition to Catalan independence

The Spanish government this weekend said it would sack the entire Catalan government and call new regional elections within six months, in an extreme move set to crush the regional independence movement.

Mariano Rajoy, Spanish prime minister, said the Catalan president as well as his cabinet would be removed from office, with Madrid taking direct control of all government ministries and public institutions, including the police and public media.

The move to trigger Article 155 of the Spanish constitution — which gives Madrid the right to take “necessary measures” to ensure compliance of any rogue region — still needs Senate approval, which is expected on Thursday. Mr Rajoy hopes that will be a decisive blow against the Catalan separatist campaign that has divided the country and put Spain’s economic expansion at risk.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, however, has vowed to fight on, even as prosecutors warned he could face up to 30 years in jail. In both Barcelona and Madrid, politicians say that far from dying down, the Catalan crisis has simply entered a new phase.

Can Madrid take control in this way?

The leader of the Catalan parliament has called the move by Mr Rajoy an illegal “coup d’état” while Barcelona’s mayor said the plans were an attack “on the rights and liberties of everyone”.

But technically speaking, yes, Madrid can do what it likes. A never-before-used article in Spain’s 1978 constitution gives the state the power to “take all measures necessary” to bring a rebellious regional administration in line.

Spanish courts have repeatedly ruled that the Catalan government is breaking the law by pushing for independence, so there is seen to be a clear case for using the “nuclear option” of Article 155.

All Mr Rajoy needs is Senate approval. His Popular party not only has a majority in the upper house, but plans to fight for Spanish unity have cross-party support.

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks during a press conference at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. The Spanish Cabinet met in Madrid Wednesday to work out its response to an announcement from the head of the wealthy Catalonia region that he was proceeding with a declaration of independence, further fueling Spain's worst political crisis in decades. (AP Photo/Paul White)
Mariano Rajoy, Spain's prime minister, wants Madrid to take direct control of Catalonia's ministries and public institutions © AP

It is over for the separatist Catalan government?

Mr Rajoy’s triggering of Article 155 is a mighty blow that is likely to be a turning point in the multiyear Catalan crisis. But the game is far from over. Mr Puigdemont now has two choices to continue the fight.

Dovish members of the government argue that he should call regional elections, hoping this will be enough to convince Mr Rajoy to call off using Article 155, protecting Catalan self government for the time being. But this is now looking less and less likely, according to people briefed on the discussions. Jordi Turull, the Catalan government spokesperson, on Sunday said early elections were off the table.

A more powerful hawkish wing wants Mr Puigdemont to make a unilateral declaration of independence, saying that Catalonia has formally broken away from Spain. The last time a Catalan president tried this was in 1934. He was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Catalan independence leaders are also hoping to organise a sustained campaign of non-violent resistance that would turn Madrid’s attempt to take control of Catalan institutions into a disaster. Mr Puigdemont said he will convene a parliamentary session in the coming days to discuss the “attacks” by Madrid and the next steps they would take.

Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont attends a ceremony commemorating the 77th anniversary of the death of Catalan leader Lluis Companys at the Montjuic Cemetery in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. Catalonia's president is facing a critical decision that could determine the course of the region's secessionist movement to break away from Spain. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has vowed to fight on for independence, even as prosecutors warned he could face up to 30 years in jail © AP

Could a campaign of non-violent resistance work?

Mr Rajoy has the law, the support of most of the country and the entire power of the Spanish state and the army on his side. On the face of it, the Catalan separatists are in a hopeless situation.

But as any guerrilla warfare tactician knows, none of this superior power matters if Mr Rajoy cannot, in practice, enforce his will on the ground.

The Spanish government was humiliated after it failed to prevent an illegal independence referendum on October 1 despite sending in thousands of national police. In the end, millions were able to vote.

This success was due to a widespread grassroots resistance by thousands of local mayors, civil servants and households. When Spanish police did resort to force, it was instantly condemned around the world, forcing them to stop.

So what is the plan?

According to people close to the Catalan government, ministers and regional ministries may in the coming weeks and months simply refuse to obey the edicts under Article 155 and challenge Spanish authorities to try and implement the law.

Regional ministers could simply refuse to abandon their offices and civil servants could decline to obey orders from Madrid. Separatists could boycott the election called by Mr Rajoy.

Worryingly for the Spanish government, the loyalty of the armed, 17,000-strong local Catalan police force is far from clear. On October 1, it ignored instruction by the Spanish courts to stop the voting. It could defy Madrid again.

Any actions by the Spanish police to enforce measures could also be met with thousands of protesters. About 450,000 people turned out in Barcelona on Saturday in protest.

Spain’s chief prosecutor said this weekend that he would seek to charge Mr Puigdemont with rebellion if he tried to formally declare independence in the coming weeks. This could be an early battle ground.

What is the weakness of this strategy?

Such a resistance relies on a large supply of pro-independence martyrs willing to face dismissal, fines or even legal action for the cause and the continued energy of pro-independence activists.

They may be able to win some victories against Madrid but Mr Rajoy is a famously patient man. The prime minister could slowly constrict the movement over time with the help of vastly superior resources and the force of the law.

Letter in response to this article: 

Any democracy has the equivalent of Article 155 / From Francisco de Borja Lasheras, Madrid, Spain

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