MADRID: Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called on Wednesday (Jul 5) for calm in the face of "authoritarian delusions" in Catalonia, as tensions between Madrid and separatists in the northeastern region surged over an independence drive.
"To all Catalans, to all Spaniards, I want to tell you to maintain confidence in the future as authoritarian delusions ... will never defeat the serenity and harmony of our democratic state," Rajoy said at a gathering in Madrid.
His comments came a day after the separatist coalition that governs Catalonia, a wealthy region of 7.5 million inhabitants with its own language and customs, unveiled a bill aimed at ensuring an independence referendum takes place despite Madrid's refusal.
Lawmakers who form the coalition said Catalonia would declare independence "immediately" if the region's voters opt to separate from Spain in the vote planned for October 1.
If the "no" side wins, new regional elections will be called, they added.
The bill aims to extract the region from Spain's legal system - a step aimed at preventing the central authorities from throwing up any legal and practical challenges to organising a referendum.
It will be submitted to a vote in the Catalan regional parliament, where separatists hold a majority, at the end of August.
'RADICAL AND DIVISIVE'
For years separatist politicians in the region have tried to win approval from Spain's central government to hold a vote similar to Scotland's 2014 independence referendum from Britain - which was approved by London, though it resulted in a "no" vote.
But Madrid has remained steadfast in its opposition to such a vote, considering it a threat to Spain's unity.
The Constitutional Court has already quashed a resolution approved by Catalonia's parliament calling for the referendum to take place.
It has also warned Catalonia's elected officials that they would face legal consequences if they took any steps towards holding such a vote.
And while not mentioning Catalonia directly, Defence Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal issued a thinly-veiled threat on Tuesday, recalling that the army was there to defend democracy and the Constitution, and the "integrity and sovereignty of our country."
In his speech, Rajoy said "Spain is a great country because it counts on the energy of many Spaniards, and many Catalans too who are sensible, democratic and moderate, and increasingly forgotten by a ... radical and divisive change of direction."
Catalans are divided on the issue of independence.
Some 48.5 per cent are against independence and 44.3 per cent are in favour, according to a recent regional government poll - - although a large majority want a referendum to take place to settle the matter once and for all.
On top of this, the Catalan executive has been wracked by internal debate over the issue, unable to find a way to guarantee the credibility of such a vote, if it ever manages to hold it faced with Madrid's refusal.
It has no regional election authority to oversee the vote, for instance, and has not found any reliable companies willing to provide ballot boxes.
Aside from the legal bans of the Constitutional Court, the central government has also threatened civil servants with sanctions if they help organise the referendum, and has warned companies against any involvement.