BARCELONA — The escalating confrontation over Catalonia’s independence drive took its most serious turn on Saturday as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain announced that he would remove the leadership of the restive region and initiate a process of direct rule by the central government in Madrid.

It was the first time that Spain’s government had moved to strip the autonomy of one of its 17 regions, and the first time that a leader had invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — a broad tool intended to protect the “general interests” of the nation.

The unexpectedly forceful moves by Mr. Rajoy, made after an emergency cabinet meeting, thrust Spain into uncharted waters as he tried to put down one of the gravest constitutional crises his country has faced since embracing democracy after the death of its 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, where thousands braved national police wielding truncheons to vote in a contentious independence referendum on Oct. 1, even after it was declared illegal by the Spanish government and courts.

“There’s nothing soft or limited about what he announced today,” Josep Ramoneda, a political columnist and philosopher, said of Mr. 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 the entire European Union, pitting democratic rights and demands for self-determination against the desire to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an important member state.

Mr. Rajoy took the bold steps with broad support from Spain’s main political opposition, and will almost certainly receive the required approval next week from the Spanish Senate, where his own conservative party holds a majority.

He did so despite repeated appeals for dialogue and mediation by the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, whose independence drive has been shunned by wary European Union officials.

Mr. 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.”

Mr. Rajoy said he planned to remove Mr. 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 Catalan center for telecommunications.

Mr. 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 Mr. Puigdemont.

Mr. Rajoy said that 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.

Mr. Puigdemont led a mass demonstration in Barcelona, the region’s capital, on Saturday afternoon, before giving his official response to Mr. Rajoy’s decision.

Protests in Barcelona on Saturday
Video by La Vanguardia

Several Catalan separatist politicians, however, reacted immediately to Mr. Rajoy’s announcement, warning that it would escalate rather than resolve the conflict.

Josep Lluís Cleries, a Catalan Senator, told reporters on Saturday that Mr. Rajoy’s decision showed that “the Spain of today is not democratic because what he has said is a return to the year 1975,” referring to Franco’s death. Mr. Rajoy, he added, was suspending not autonomy in Catalonia but democracy.

Oriol Junqueras, the region’s deputy leader, said in a tweet that Catalonia was “facing totalitarianism” and called on citizens to join the Barcelona protest on Saturday.

Significantly, Iñigo Urkullu, the leader of the Basque region, which also has a long history of separatism, described the measures as “disproportionate and extreme,” writing on Twitter that they would “dynamite the bridges” to any dialogue.

Faced with Madrid’s decision to remove him from office, Mr. Puigdemont could try to pre-empt Mr. Rajoy’s intervention and instead ask Catalan lawmakers to vote on a declaration of independence in coming days — as he had threatened to do earlier this month.

Mr. Puigdemont could also then try to convene Catalan elections, on his own terms, to form what he could describe as the first Parliament of a new Catalan republic.

Should Mr. Puigdemont resist Mr. 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. Earlier this week, a judge from Spain’s national court ordered prison without bail for two separatist leaders, pending a sedition trial.

Using Article 155 “was neither our desire nor our intention,” Mr. Rajoy said on Saturday, but had become the only way to to return Catalonia to legality, normality and maintain a Spanish economic recovery “which is now under clear danger because of the capricious and unilateral decisions” of the Catalan separatist government.

Mr. 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 ofa breakup with Madrid.

Mr. Rajoy received strong backing from politicians from the main opposition parties, with the notable exception of Podemos, the far-left party that wants to use a referendum to convince 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 televised news conference on Saturday, after Mr. Rajoy’s announcement.

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