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article imageRepublic or no republic? Day of confusion in Catalonia

By Laurence Boutreux and Daniel Bosque (AFP)     Oct 30, 2017 in Politics

Is Catalonia's republic dead in the water? Are its leaders really beating a retreat just three days after the regional parliament declared independence?

A sense of confusion reigned Monday on the streets of Barcelona... and in Catalan government offices.

"There is no Catalan republic as such," Marc Galvan, a 24-year-old "leftwing independence supporter", said as he walked out of a book store in the centre.

The unilateral declaration of independence was voted by 70 regional lawmakers out of 135 on Friday.

But it has not taken effect and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government has already imposed direct rule on the semi-autonomous region, which is deeply divided over independence, under article 155 of the Constitution.

Since then, independence supporters have been waiting for a clear signal from Carles Puigdemont and Oriol Junqueras, both of whom have now been deposed by Madrid as Catalan president and vice president, to say whether they should resist Madrid's moves.

- 'Jumped ship' -

"If they take the plunge, if they say they will press on until the end, people will respond. But if they only half commit, people will get weary," said Galvan, a politics student.

In a televised statement on Saturday, Puigdemont called for "democratic opposition" to Madrid's move to take over Catalan powers, without detailing what that would entail.

Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont was said to be in Brussels on Monday
Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont was said to be in Brussels on Monday

But on this first working day since independence was declared, he was conspicuously absent -- "gone to Brussels", according to a Spanish government source.

For what, though, remains a mystery.

To Agustin Sanllehi, 74, the situation is clear "Rajoy stopped this stupidity, the separatists have jumped ship like rats and Puigdemont is a clown."

"The republic is dead in the water," the retired company director insisted, while smoking a cigar on a bench on the chic Paseo de Gracia boulevard where he protested for unity on Sunday along with hundreds of thousands of others.

"They proclaimed it half-heartedly, and they didn't even represent 50 percent of Catalans."

In regional government offices, it was business-as-usual amid the disarray.

"Things have been changing at a crazy speed since Thursday and we're waiting to see what is going to happen every 10 minutes," said Joan Escanilla, spokesman for the CSIF civil servants union.

"But day-to-day work continues. For the average civil servant, the doctor, the teacher, it's going to be more or less the same and the firefighter will go extinguish the fire, 155 or no 155."

An employee in Catalonia's tax agency, who refused to be identified by name, said that civil servants had not received any orders from Madrid.

"We only received orders to stop responding to questions from people asking how they could pay their taxes directly to the Catalan agency," he said. Catalans normally pay their taxes directly to Madrid.

"It's been decided to keep a low profile."

- 'People are bitter' -

In Catalonia's official government bulletin, "there was nothing on the "republic" according to employees at the regional agriculture ministry.

"I'm not pro-independence and I won't ever be, but I'm sad because these are confusing times, people are bitter, society is divided," said ministry employee Isabel Ros during a coffee break.

"I have pro-independence family members and I understand that people may feel that way," the 35-year-old added.

"For me, Madrid is behaving very badly because it's disproportionate to implement article 155 as there is no violence or insurrection here."

Her colleague Raquel, 38, said she was not pro-independence but added that "people are allowed to peacefully express this fervour they have felt for years".

Around the same time in Madrid, the chief prosecutor called for Puigdemont and his deputies to be charged with rebellion, an offence punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

It was Puigdemont who called the banned independence referendum on October 1 that triggered the country's worst crisis in decades.

Carles Enrich, a 64-year-old former company director who is pro-independence, finds the charges outrageous.

"In theory, we're already a republic and Spanish law should not affect us any more than the law in another country."

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