After ‘independence,’ Catalonia girds for pushback from unity backers

Barcelona on knife’s edge as protesters opposed to secession to rally, amid looming fears of clash between Madrid government and pro-independence Catalans

A young man uses a megaphone as other youths wrapped in Spanish flags listen to him during a demonstration calling for unity in Barcelona on October 28, 2017, a day after direct control was imposed on Catalonia over a bid to break away from Spain.(AFP/PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU)

A young man uses a megaphone as other youths wrapped in Spanish flags listen to him during a demonstration calling for unity in Barcelona on October 28, 2017, a day after direct control was imposed on Catalonia over a bid to break away from Spain.(AFP/PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU)

BARCELONA, Spain — Pro-unity protesters will gather in Catalonia’s capital Barcelona Sunday, 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, secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont was defiant Saturday, calling for “democratic opposition” to the central government’s seizure of regional power.

Puigdemont accused Madrid of trampling on the will of independence-seeking Catalans with the first curtailment of regional autonomy since 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 October 1 that was shunned by many and marred by police violence.

Throwing down the gauntlet 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.

A flag with the text in Catalan “The people lead” is held up as people gather to celebrate the proclamation of a Catalan republic at the Sant Jaume square in Barcelona on October 27, 2017. (AFP/PAU BARRENA)

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

Rajoy’s intervention was “contrary to the will expressed by the citizens of our country,” 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!”.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gives a press conference after a cabinet meeting at La Moncloa Palace in Madrid, on October 27, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / JAVIER SORIANO)

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.

Organizers of Sunday’s gathering had assembled hundreds of thousands of people for a similar protest in the city on October 8.

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

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 Puigdemont, his regional ministers, heads of departments, and the chief of police.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont speaks during a statement at the Palau Generalitat in Barcelona, Spain, on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017. (Presidency Press Service, Pool Photo via AP)

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 Puigdemont have threatened “mass civil disobedience” if Rajoy carries out the power grab, but have yet to announce any plans.

On Friday, an umbrella group of Spanish Jews on Friday blamed separatists for the kingdom’s crisis and declared allegiance to the constitution.

The Madrid-based Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain, or FCJE, expressed “deep concern over the grave national crisis,” in a statement.

The 45,000 Jews of Catalonia, a third of Spain’s total Jewish population according to the European Jewish Congress, are deeply divided on the issue of independence, according to Victor Sorenssen, the leader of the Jewish community of Barcelona.

“This is a political matter that doesn’t directly concern Judaism, so the community has no position on it as such,” Sorenssen said earlier this month of the organization representing Barcelona’s Jews.

‘A free country’

Rajoy’s deputy, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, was put in charge Saturday of administering the rebel region.

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.

People hold signs reading “No to the impunity of coup plotters” and “(Catalan regional president Carles) Puigdemont to prison” while waving Spanish flags during a demonstration calling for unity at Plaza de Colon in Madrid on October 28, 2017, a day after direct control was imposed on Catalonia over a bid to break away from Spain. ( AFP PHOTO / JAVIER SORIANO)

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

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

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

Real trouble for Real Madrid?

On the sporting front, Spanish champions Real Madrid’s head into a fray on Sunday when they travel 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.”

The Spanish (L) and Catalan Senyera flags flutter over Catalonia’s Generalitat Palace in Barcelona on October 28, 2017, a day after direct control was imposed on the region over a bid to break away from Spain. ( AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU)

Roughly the size of Belgium, Catalonia accounts for about 16 percent 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.

JTA contributed to this report