The Spanish government on Monday rolled out a legal roadblock to stop the Catalonia region voting on independence, branding the planned ballot an affront to the sovereignty of Spain.
After Catalonia’s president Artur Mas staked his leadership on the issue by calling the vote for November 9, the national government responded by filing a constitutional challenge.
Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he “deeply” regretted Mas’s move.
“I regret it because it is against the law, it bypasses democracy and divides Catalans, it alienates them from Europe and the rest of Spain and seriously harms their welfare,” Rajoy said.
He said the government had sent the appeal to the country’s Constitutional Court and that Mas’s measures would be suspended as soon as that tribunal accepted the appeal, pending a final decision by its judges.
Buoyed by mass street demonstrations, Mas has pushed ahead for a vote in defiance of Rajoy’s warnings.
“You cannot use the law to prevent people indefinitely from stating their opinion,” Mas said in a television interview on Sunday in anticipation of Monday’s appeal.
“Voting on November is the best thing for everyone because it will allow us and also the Spanish government to know what the Catalan people’s opinion is.”
Rajoy insisted on Monday that the right to decide on a region’s status belonged to “all of the Spanish people” under the country’s 1978 constitution — the keystone of Spain’s democracy after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco.
“There is nothing and no one, no power nor institution, that can break this principle of sole sovereignty,” Rajoy told reporters after an extraordinary cabinet meeting.
– Catalans defiant –
The appeal did not put off supporters of independence, who vowed to continue preparing for the vote regardless.
“We will not stand by idle after this suspension,” said the spokesman for Mas’s government, Francesc Homs, on Catalan television.
“We are committed to voting on November 9,” said Oriol Junqueras, leader of the left-wing Catalan nationalist party ERC, which is allied with Mas’s conservative CiU grouping in the regional parliament.
“We are aware of the great difficulties we will face in the coming days but we are ready to face those difficulties.”
Fired up by Scotland’s plans to hold its referendum earlier this month, 1.8 million people turned out in Barcelona on September 11 to demand their own vote.
Scottish voters eventually chose not to be independent from Britain.
But like Scotland, Catalonia “wants to be heard and it wants to vote,” Mas said after he signed a decree on Saturday formally calling the vote.
Rajoy described the independence ambitions of the Scottish National Party and Catalonia as a “torpedo” to European integration.
Mas has vowed to let Catalans vote on breaking away but has also promised to respect Spanish law.
He has hinted that if the government blocks the vote, he could put his leadership at stake in an early regional election in Catalonia, which could serve as a plebiscite on the issue.
Catalonia is Spain’s economic powerhouse, accounting for about a fifth of the country’s economy. But it suffered like all of Spain from the property crash and ensuing economic downturn sparked by the 2008-2012 global financial crisis.
Proud of their Catalan language and culture, many of the region’s 7.5 million inhabitants feel short-changed by the government in Madrid which redistributes their taxes.
The independence movement in Catalonia has gathered strength in recent years as Spain’s economic crisis has increased unemployment and hardship in the region and swelled its debts.
Catalonia formally adopted the status of a “nation” in 2006 but the Constitutional Court overruled that claim.