Ciudadanos leader demands Madrid suspend Catalonia's autonomy as pro-Spain protesters take to streets

James Badcock
Albert Rivera led a counter-demonstration of some 2000 people after days of huge pro-independence protests in Catalonia - REUTERS

The leader of the Spanish opposition party Ciudadanos on Sunday demanded Madrid impose direct rule in Catalonia after days of separatist protests, as he led a pro-Spain counter-demonstration in Barcelona. 

Albert Rivera, the head of the centre-Right party, called on Spain’s Socialist Party government to end the “chaos”, suspend Catalonia's autonomy and remove its president, Quim Torra, from office.

“Torra must be sacked. What are they waiting for when there is an article in the Constitution that allows for this?” Mr Rivera said to a crowd of some 2,000 people.

He was referring to Article 155, which allows for Madrid to intervene in autonomous communities deemed to be acting unconstitutionally or against Spain's interests. It was first enacted in Catalonia to remove the government of Carles Puigdemont after the banned independence referendum of October 2017.

Friday and Saturday saw hundreds of thousands of pro-independence protesters take to the streets to oppose lengthy prison sentences given to organisers of that referendum.

On Saturday night, Catalan independence supporters formed a buffer between security forces and radical protesters near the National Police headquarters in Barcelona, a street which had seen some of the biggest pitched battles on previous nights.

Catalonia’s health department said on Sunday that 13 people were still in hospital with injuries sustained during the protests, adding that four people have lost their sight in one eye due to impacts from plastic bullets.   Eighteen protesters have been remanded in custody out of 194 arrested.  

Madrid said that the past week had seen 288 police officers hurt in clashes with protesters, with one policeman in a critical condition in a Barcelona hospital after a chunk of pavement used as a missile had broken through his protective helmet.  

While Saturday saw a significant reduction in the level of violence on the streets of Barcelona, there are no signs of any political will among Spanish political leaders to engage in dialogue with Mr Torra’s pro-independence administration.

According to sources from the Catalan government, Mr Torra has repeatedly tried to telephone Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in recent days, but his calls have not been answered.

Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska demanded that “all political forces distance themselves from the violence”.

Mr Torra made several calls for calm during last week’s disturbances, but he also referred consistently to “infiltrators” as being responsible for the violence. In response, Mr Sánchez criticised the Catalan leader for “downplaying” the violence and its effects.

The Sánchez government insists that it is dealing with the protests in a firm but proportional manner, and has so far rejected calls from opposition figures such as Mr Rivera and conservative Popular Party leader Pablo Casado for a tougher line.

Ahead of a general election in Spain on November 10, Mr Casado too has pledged to impose Article 155. 

The measure was applied for seven months in 2017 and 2018 after the referendum and subsequent declaration of independence from Spain, but Mr Rivera and others are suggesting a longer and more profound period of intervention to purge the regional authority.