A young woman sings the Catalan anthem in University Square on Thursday in Barcelona, Spain. Thousands of students have rallied in support of the Declaration of independence and the Catalan Republic in Barcelona. (Paco Freire/SOPA/Zuma Press/TNS)

Catalonia regional leader does not call for independence or elections despite Spain’s deadline

BARCELONA, Spain — After dramatic brinkmanship with Spain’s central government, Catalonia’s leader said Thursday he would not call for early elections that might have eased a tense standoff with Madrid over independence.

The northeastern region’s president, Carles Puigdemont, also had not declared independence, as some secessionists had hoped he might do.

With the clock ticking down on a Friday deadline set by Spain, Puigdemont denounced the Madrid government’s plan to impose direct rule on Catalonia — a move expected to include ousting him.

“This is an abusive step,” Puigdemont said in a televised speech. “I do not accept these measures. They are unjust.”

After the speech, the regional parliament quickly convened to try to plot a course.

The struggle has pitted Catalonia, which has limited self-rule, against a central government that has branded the region’s independence drive illegal and illegitimate under Spain’s constitution. It is the most serious political confrontation of the country’s nearly 40-year democratic era.

Spanish authorities and Puigdemont’s government have been headed for a showdown since regional leaders staged an independence referendum on Oct. 1, defying Spanish court rulings. More than half the electorate stayed away, and police tried to stop the balloting, but the result was overwhelmingly in favor of breaking away.

That set off weeks of bitter back-and-forth exchanges between Madrid and Barcelona, the Catalan capital. Puigdemont sent mixed signals, saying that the vote result was a mandate to declare independence, but stopping short of doing so and then ignoring subsequent Spanish government demands that he clarify his position.

Last week, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared his intention to impose direct rule on the region using a constitutional provision known as Article 155. That would allow for the ouster of Puigdemont and senior deputies, along with a takeover of the region’s police and finances.

With Spain’s Senate set to meet in Madrid on Friday morning to ratify the use of the article, Puigdemont again faced a make-or-break moment Thursday. But as previously, his tactic appeared to be to delay and defer.
The situation was tense on the streets of Barcelona, with national and regional police standing by as crowds of people, some chanting “Independence,” gathered in the Placa Sant Jaume, an elegant square fronting City Hall and Catalonia’s regional headquarters.

Earlier, hundreds of students took to the streets outside the University of Barcelona, hoisting striped Catalan flags and waving handmade signs.

“Rajoy with Article 155 is returning to Francoism,” said one sign, referring to the dictator Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. “Don’t suspend democracy,” read another. High-school student Oriol Lapeira, 17, held a sign that said in Catalan: “Do not feed us crumbs when we want the whole loaf.”

“We’re defending our rights,” he said as he stood in a street closed to traffic by local police who patrolled nearby.

Mariona Motjer, a junior studying journalism at the university, said she and her parents in nearby Girona voted “yes” in the Oct. 1 referendum. “We want a republic, and if they don’t declare it, we will take the struggle to the streets.”

It was an opinion shared even by some who chose not to march.

“Our society is not going to survive” without independence, said Eduardo Llobet, 60, an industrial engineer who watched approvingly as protesters passed. “It’s self-defense.”

Lawyer Guzman Vidal, 66, described himself as a moderate who doesn’t think independence will solve all of Catalonia’s problems. But said he said he became an independentista over the past month as he watched the confrontation escalate between the region’s government and authorities in Madrid.

“This is going to be a period of conflict,” he said.

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