Spain is set to impose direct rule over Catalonia, risking violent clashes and market turmoil

Spain’s constitutional crisis has entered a dangerous new phase, with Catalonia facing renewed unrest as the central government in Madrid pledges to impose direct rule over the autonomous region.

Following the region’s controversial and constitutionally illegal Oct. 1 referendum on independence, Catalonia’s leader Carles Puigdemont delivered a lengthy, confusing speech last week in which he pledged to “suspend the effect of the independence declaration” after 90% of voters opted for independence from Spain. On Oct. 16, Puigdemont defied Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s deadline to clarify whether the region had definitively declared independence or not.

Rajoy then gave Puigdemont until today (Oct. 19) at 10am local time to say, again, whether Catalonia has formally declared independence. Puigdemont sent a letter saying he wanted face-to-face talks about Catalonia’s future, avoiding an outright declaration once again. In response, Spain’s central government called an emergency cabinet for Saturday to “approve measures to be put before the senate to protect the general interest of Spaniards – including the citizens of Catalonia – and to restore constitutional order in the autonomous community.”

Article 155 of the 1978 Spanish constitution allows the central government in Madrid to impose direct rule over Spain’s self-governing regions in the event of a crisis. This so-called “nuclear option” has never been invoked before. Spanish stocks and the euro fell on the news (paywall).

The run-up and aftermath of Catalonia’s independence referendum have been marked by large demonstrations and sporadic violence. During the referendum, the central government deployed troops to drag voters out of polling stations; over 300 injuries were reported. The possibility of Madrid assuming control of Catalonia’s police, its regional finances, or calling for new regional elections could stoke further tensions.

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