Article 155: The Spanish government abolishes Catalan self-rule (for now)


Following the Catalan independence referendum that took place in the midst of police brutality and state repression on various levels on 1 October last, the Spanish government activated Article 155 of the Constitution, effectively removing self-rule from Catalonia and deposing the government.

Months before the referendum, as rhetorical conflict between the Spanish and Catalan governments escalated, talk of the suspension of Catalan autonomy by the central government began. These threats became increasingly overt following the referendum, as it became evident that Rajoy intended to trigger Article 155.

The Spanish constitution establishes that the senate is the body that must approve the article’s activation. In this regard it is worth recalling that the senate is the house of parliament where the Popular Party and centralist Spanish vote are most over-represented. Despite the Popular Party obtaining only 33% of the vote, 56% of senators belong to the party, and they all owe their jobs to the party hierarchy. They obey Rajoy. So, to put it simply: the government owns the senate.

But the PP was not alone when it decided to put a temporary (?) end to Catalan self-rule. The Socialist Party, probably seeking to capitalise on rising anti-Catalan sentiment drummed up by the media across Spain, in spite of having said just a couple of months earlier that they would never support article 155 being implemented, made a point of endorsing the government. Ciudadanos, on the other hand, had been demanding the article be triggered much sooner.

The Article is triggered

On 11 October Rajoy issued Puigdemont with an ultimatum, asking him to clarify wether the statement he had made two days earlier was tantamount to declaring independence. Only a clear negative answer, which amounted to complete surrender by the Catalan government would be accepted by the Spanish government. In the days that followed Puigdemont offered dialogue, but not surrender, and on the 21 October Rajoy announced the measures that would be put before the senate. They included: removing the Catalan government, restricting parliamentary activity, removing the head of the Catalan police, taking control of finances and telecommunications, intervening Catalan public broadcasters, disbanding the Catalan diplomatic service, and calling elections within 6 months.

A week later, as the Catalan parliament held a session in which it voted on a declaration of independence pursuant to the popular mandate resulting from the 1 October referendum, the senate voted the article 155 measures. According to Puigdemont he attempted to negotiate until the last minute, and was willing to call elections instead of holding the parliamentary vote on the declaration, but only if he received assurances regarding the conditions in which the elections would take place. Apparently these never came and in the end both things occurred: independence was declared and article 155 was triggered. On the evening of 27 October Rajoy announced the dissolution of the Catalan parliament and the dismissal of the government, in addition to calling elections on 21 December.

Has its application actually been legal?

The measures ratified by the senate have been questioned by many. It would seem that they go far beyond what the constitution foresees. An initial appeal against the measures adopted was presented by the Catalan government to the Constitutional Court, but rejected on the grounds that it was presented before the measures came into effect. This is a classical Catch-22, as once they came into effect, the Catalan government was effectively dismissed. On 7 December Podemos-Catalunya En Comú presented an appeal to the Constitutional Court claiming the sweeping powers that the senate had granted the Spanish government went far beyond what article 155 foresaw.

Let us look briefly at the article itself and compare it to the way it has been applied. The first clause states:

1. If an Autonomous Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of Spain, the Government, after lodging a complaint with the President of the Autonomous Community and failing to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by an absolute majority of the Senate, take the measures necessary in order to compel the latter forcibly to meet said obligations, or in order to protect the above-mentioned general interests.

Here it would seem incongruous that the obligation involved in the initial complaint (independence being declared or not) bear no relationship to the actual measures subsequently taken, such as dissolving parliament and dismissing the government, or taking control of regional finances and media. Additionally, the case for independence having been declared at the time when the measures were decided, is at best weak, as when one reads Puigdemont’s replies to Rajoy one finds that he implicitly recognized that the declaration had not taken place.

Now let us look at the second clause, which is more susbstantive in nature. It reads:

2. With a view to implementing the measures provided in the foregoing clause, the Government may issue instructions to all the authorities of the Autonomous Communities.

The argument invoked by critics and contained in the appeal filed by Podemos to the Constitutional Court is that if the legislators who decided on the constitutional text considered it necessary to be explicit about “issuing instructions” how would they not be equally explicit in the text about carrying out actions of a far more drastic nature, such as dissolving parliament, dismissing a democratically elected government and taking direct control of the region? In fact, when the constitution was drafted, an amendment to the article granting the government the capacity to do exactly these things was rejected. Therefore, it should be assumed that dissolving parliaments and dismissing governments are not covered by “issuing instructions” to regional governments. How the Constitutional Court deal with Podemos’ appeal remains to be seen.

Application in practice

As of 28 October Catalan self-government was effectively suspended and direct control taken by Madrid. Most of the provisions contained in the implementation document of article 155 drafted by the cabinet and adopted by the senate, other than the dismissal of government and parliament , have been implemented with a relatively light touch (at the time of writing). Rajoy has given himself sweeping powers, which he has decided to implement gradually. This may partly be because fierce resistance from within the Catalan civil service is also something he needs to contend with, and ruling Catalonia from without is no easy task for an incompetent government such as his. Many in Catalonia consider that, in practice, a full implementation of direct rule in the terms set out on 27 October, is simply impossible. On 9 November a general strike accompanied by actions blocking highways and railways across Catalonia were a demonstration that Rajoy’s effective territorial control of the region, barring widespread police brutality, was anything but clear.

Article 155 is a key component of the the Spanish government’s strategy to put an end to the Catalan independence process. The other key component, which works in tandem with it, is the judicial onslaught which ranges from the accusations of rebellion and sedition brought against deposed ministers and social leaders to charges of hate crimes being filed against school teachers for discussing police brutality in class. Additionally the central electoral board has been doing its best to limit free political expression in the run up to the election, banning the use of the color yellow, associated to the demand that political prisoners be released, and preventing the use of the term “political prisoner” itself.

The Government’s strategy to put an end to what it calls “el desafío independentista” (the separatist challenge) consists in repression through a variety of mechanisms. By removing self-government, jailing political leaders and creating economic fear, it hopes it can condition the result of the upcoming election. Many of the leading candidates in the independence camp are currently in prison, and actually punished when small recordings of their voices, made during 5 minute telephone calls they are entitled to, make it out to the public sphere. Others are in exile in Belgium. Following the election a new government should be formed and self-rule returned to the Catalan people. What will actually happen, however, is anybody’s guess.

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