BARCELONA, Spain -- The confrontation over Catalonia's independence drive escalated Saturday as Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced he would remove the leadership of the restive region and initiate a process of direct rule by the central government in Madrid.
It marks the first time Spain's government has moved to strip the autonomy of one of its 17 regions and the first time a leader has invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution -- a broad tool intended to protect the "general interests" of the nation.
The forceful moves by Rajoy, made after an emergency Cabinet meeting, thrust Spain into uncharted waters. The prime minister is trying to put down one of the biggest constitutional crises his country has faced since embracing democracy after the death of the dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.
The steps were immediately condemned by Catalan leaders and risked further inflaming an already volatile atmosphere in the prosperous northeastern region. On Oct. 1, thousands of people voted in a contentious independence referendum for Catalonia, even after it was declared illegal by the Spanish government and courts and despite the presence of police officers wielding truncheons.
"There's nothing soft or limited about what he announced today," Josep Ramoneda, a political columnist, said of Rajoy. "We're entering a very delicate phase, in which an independence movement that appeared to be running out of options might now draw instead on a collective sense of humiliation at seeing Catalonia being forced under Madrid's control."
Fueled by economic grievances and a distinct language and culture, aspirations for an independent state in Catalonia have ebbed and flowed for generations.
But the current confrontation has presented a vexing quandary not only for Spain but also for the entire European Union, pitting demands for self-determination against the desire to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an important member state.
Rajoy's steps have broad support from Spain's main political opposition and are likely to receive the required approval this week from the Spanish Senate, where his conservative party holds a majority.
He took those steps despite repeated appeals for dialogue and mediation by Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, whose independence drive has been shunned by EU officials.
Rajoy said the Catalan government had never offered real dialogue but had instead tried to impose its secessionist project on Catalan citizens and the rest of the country in violation of Spain's Constitution.
He said his government was putting an end to "a unilateral process, contrary to the law and searching for confrontation" because "no government of any democratic country can accept that the law be violated, ignored and changed."
Rajoy said he planned to remove Puigdemont and the rest of his separatist administration from office. The central government was also poised to take charge of Catalonia's autonomous police force and the region's center for telecommunications.
Rajoy did not ask to dissolve the Catalan parliament but instead said that the president of the assembly would not be allowed to take any initiative judged to be contrary to Spain's Constitution for a period of 30 days, including trying to propose another leader to replace Puigdemont.
Rajoy said his goal was to arrange new Catalan elections within six months, so as to lift the measures taken under Article 155 as soon as possible. It's unclear, however, how such elections would be organized or whether they would significantly change Catalonia's political landscape, let alone help to resolve the territorial conflict.
Meanwhile, protesters wrapped in red-and-yellow Catalan flags flooded the streets of central Barcelona on Saturday, holding up signs calling for freedom.
About 450,000 people joined the protest, according to police, although an anti-secession group put the number at 85,000. The demonstration had originally been called to protest the detention of two pro-independence activists who are awaiting possible sedition charges, but it turned into an outcry over Rajoy's takeover move.
"We are here because the Spanish government made a coup without weapons against the Catalan people and their government institutions," said Joan Portet, a 58-year-old protester.
In a televised address late Saturday, Puigdemont said he would convene parliament this week to discuss the response to Rajoy; he did not rule out using the session to declare independence. He accused the Spanish government of trying to "eliminate our self-government and our democracy."
In a part of his speech delivered in English, Puigdemont also addressed Europe's politicians and citizens and suggested Europe's "foundational values are at risk" in the dispute with Madrid. "Democratically deciding the future of a nation is not a crime," he argued.
Puigdemont called Rajoy's plans to replace him and his Cabinet an "attempt to humiliate" Catalonia and an "attack on democracy." He called on the regional parliament to "debate and decide on the attempt to wipe out our self-government and our democracy, and act accordingly."
Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, who opposes independence without a valid referendum, called Rajoy's measures "a serious attack" on self-government in Catalonia. Others went further. Catalan parliament Speaker Carme Forcadell accused Spain's central authorities of carrying out a coup.
"Mariano Rajoy has announced a de facto coup d'etat with the goal of ousting a democratically elected government," Forcadell said, calling it "an authoritarian blow within a member of the European Union."
Forcadell pledged Saturday evening to defend "the sovereignty" of her assembly. "We will not take a step back," she said at a news conference. "Mr. Rajoy isn't conscious that by attacking the institutions, he is attacking the society of this country."
Some Catalan separatist politicians warned that Rajoy's announcement would escalate rather than resolve the conflict.
Josep Lluis Cleries, a Catalan senator, told reporters Saturday that Rajoy was suspending democracy, not autonomy, in Catalonia.
Should Puigdemont resist Rajoy's plans, Spain's judiciary could separately step in and order that he and other separatists be arrested on charges of sedition or even rebellion for declaring independence.
Rebellion carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years. Last week, a judge from Spain's national court ordered that two separatist leaders be sent to prison without bail, pending a sedition trial.
Using Article 155 "was neither our desire nor our intention," Rajoy said Saturday, but had become the only way to return Catalonia to legality and normality and to maintain a Spanish economic recovery "which is now under clear danger because of the capricious and unilateral decisions" of the Catalan separatist government.
Rajoy highlighted the decision of over 1,000 Catalan companies this month to relocate their legal headquarters outside the region, in response to the uncertainty generated by the possibility of a breakup with Madrid.
Rajoy received strong backing from politicians from the main opposition parties, with the exception of Podemos, the far-left party that wants to use a referendum to persuade Catalan voters to remain within Spain.
"We're shocked by the suspension of democracy in Catalonia," Pablo Echenique, a senior official from Podemos, said in a news conference Saturday.
Information for this article was contributed by Raphael Minder of The New York Times and by Aritz Parra, Pietro DeCristofaro and Vicente Marquez of The Associated Press.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont (center) holds hands with Deputy President Oriol Junqueras (left) and speaker of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell during a protest Saturday in Barcelona, Spain.
People listen on their phones Saturday to a speech by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont in Barcelona, Spain.
A Section on 10/22/2017
Print Headline: Spain puts forth plan to prevent secession