MADRID/BARCELONA: The Spanish government will impose direct rule on Catalonia, firing the regional government and forcing a new election, it said on Saturday, unprecedented steps that brought thousands of pro-independence protesters onto to the streets.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who made a symbolic declaration of independence on Oct. 10 after a referendum that Madrid declared illegal, joined the protests in Barcelona and was due to speak at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT).
By getting rid of Puigdemont, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hopes to end what has become Spain's worst political crisis in four decades and has prompted Madrid to reduce growth forecasts for the euro zone's fourth-largest economy and raised fears of prolonged unrest.
It is the first time since Spain's return to democracy in the late 1970s that the central government has invoked the constitutional right to take control of a region.
Rajoy acted with backing from the main opposition party in Madrid and King Felipe, who said on Friday that "Catalonia is and will remain an essential part" of Spain.
"We will ask the Senate, with the aim of protecting the general interest of the nation, to authorise the government ... to dismiss the Catalan president and his government," Rajoy told a news conference.
Spain's upper house of parliament is scheduled to vote on the plan next Friday, giving Madrid full control of Catalonia's finances, police and public media and curbing the powers of the regional parliament.
But that may give the independence movement room to manoeuvre.
The Catalan parliament is expected to decide on Monday whether to hold a session to formally proclaim the republic of Catalonia.
Catalan media have said Puigdemont could also dissolve the regional parliament and call elections before the Spanish senate makes direct rule effective. Under Catalan law, those elections would take place within two months.
"LET'S PROCLAIM THE REPUBLIC"
Puigdemont and his cabinet marched in Barcelona on Saturday wearing yellow ribbons in support of two senior independence campaigners who have been jailed on charges of sedition.
"Freedom! Freedom!" protesters chanted as they waived independence flags and signs reading "Defending our land is not a crime" and "Let's proclaim the republic."
"(Rajoy) triggering this article will not resolve anything," said 38-year-old builder Abel Fernandez, attending the demonstration with a pro-independence flag tied around his neck.
"They won't be able to keep quiet the half of Catalonia that is in favour of independence and those who favour the right to decide."
Pro-independence parties said Rajoy's move showed the Spanish state was no longer democratic.
"The Spanish government has carried out a coup against a democratic and legal majority," Marta Rovira, a lawmaker from Catalan government party Esquerra Republica de Catalunya, tweeted.
Anti-capitalist party CUP, which backs the pro-independence minority government in the regional assembly said: "Taken over but never defeated. Popular unity for the Republic now. Not a single step back."
Catalan authorities said about 90 percent of those who took part in the referendum on Oct. 1 voted for independence. But only 43 percent of the electorate participated, with most opponents of secession staying at home.
The independence push has met with strong opposition across the rest of Spain and divided Catalonia itself. It has also and prompted hundreds of firms to move their headquarters out of the region. Rajoy on Saturday urged them to stay.
His centre-right People's Party (PP) government received unequivocal backing from the opposition Socialist Party.
"Differences with the PP on our territorial unity? None!" said Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez.
Rajoy said he did not intend to use the special powers for more than six months.
"Our objective is to restore the law and a normal cohabitation among citizens, which has deteriorated a lot, continue with the economic recovery, which is under threat today in Catalonia, and celebrate elections in a situation of normality," he said.
Madrid has insisted that Puigdemont - who has threatened to press ahead with independence unless Madrid agreed to a dialogue - has broken the law several times in pushing for independence.
"The rulers of Catalonia have respected neither the law on which our democracy is based nor the general interest," the government said in a memorandum to the Senate. "This situation is unsustainable."
Pro-independence groups have mustered more than 1 million people onto the streets in protest at Madrid's refusal to negotiate a solution.
Heavy-handed police tactics to shut down the independence referendum were condemned by human rights groups, and secessionists accused Madrid of taking "political prisoners".
Hacking group Anonymous on Saturday joined a campaign called "Free Catalonia" and took down the website of Spain's constitutional court.
Spain's national security department had said on Friday it was expecting such an attack to take place, though nobody was available on Saturday to confirm it.
(Additional reporting by Isla Binnie, Carlos Ruano and Tomas Cobos in Madrid; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Robin Pomeroy)