Catalan lawmakers vote to split from Spain amid independence crisis

BARCELONA, Spain — The Catalan Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of declaring independence from Spain on Friday, taking the country’s deepening political crisis into uncharted territory.

The vote brought to a head a weeks-long standoff with Madrid that began with a disputed referendum on October 1, and came as the Spanish Senate approved the Madrid government’s unprecedented plans to seize control of the autonomous region.

The Spanish government is now expected to begin moves at the weekend to remove from office the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his ministers, and impose direct rule from Madrid.

Lawmakers voted in secret in the Catalan Parliament chamber after a heated debate on a motion “to form the Catalan Republic as an independent and sovereign state.”

The outcome: 70 votes in favor, 10 against and two blanks.

Opposition lawmakers walked out of the chamber ahead of the vote.

Pro-independence crowds massed outside the Parliament cheered and waved the Catalan “Estelada” separatist flag as the result was announced.

Within minutes, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted an appeal for calm.

“I ask all Spaniards to remain calm. The rule of law will restore legality in Catalonia,” he said.

The two parliamentary sessions were the culmination of a weeks-long standoff, which began on October 1 when Catalonia defied Madrid and held a banned referendum on independence, plunging Spain into its worst political crisis since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s.

Hopes for a resolution were dashed Thursday when Catalan President Carles Puigdemont backed away from a plan to call new elections himself, amid disagreement within his own party and pressure from opposing sides.

Rajoy: No other way

Addressing the Spanish Senate earlier Friday, Rajoy urged lawmakers to approve his government’s plans to dissolve the Catalan parliament and call new elections under a never-before-used provision of the country’s constitution, Article 155.

Rajoy said the rule of law had been “stomped on” in Catalonia and warned of a fracturing of society. “Exceptional measures need to be adopted when there are no other ways to go back to normality,” he said.

Those measures are “not against Catalonia but aiming to stop Catalonia being abused,” he said. “Not to suspend the autonomy of Catalonia but to consolidate it; not to cut back rights but to restore them to legality. What’s threatening Catalonia is not Article 155 but the behavior of the government of Catalonia.”

The Senate — where Rajoy’s Popular Party has a majority — will vote on the measures later.

Two Spanish opposition parties, PSOE and Ciudadanos, have said they will back the Article 155 measures, according to Rajoy.

Three amendments put forward by PSOE before Friday’s debate could soften their impact. One amendment would allow Article 155 still to be suspended if new elections are called, while another would block a proposal to take control of the public media in Catalonia.

It’s not yet clear how quickly the measures would be implemented after the Senate approves the application of Article 155.

Lack of guarantees

In a public statement made Thursday, Puigdemont said he had considered the option of dissolving the regional Parliament and calling new elections.

But he had rejected the idea, he said, apparently because he could not obtain guarantees from the central government that it would not press ahead with a plan to impose direct rule on the region.

“My obligation and responsibility is to explore all the possibilities, absolutely all of them, to find a solution through dialogue, an agreed solution, to a political conflict that is of a democratic nature,” he said.

In a sign of the divisions within the regional government’s ranks, Catalan business minister Santi Vila — seen as a moderate who favored calling elections — resigned Thursday.