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Spanish Prime Minister Takes Unprecedented Step To Dissolve Catalan Government

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks during a press conference after a Cabinet meeting at Moncloa Palace on Saturday in Madrid.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced Saturday that he was invoking a provision in his country's constitution that allows him to suspend and overtake the regional government of Catalonia as part of his effort to quell its secessionist movement.

"I am firing the Catalan regional president and all Catalan government ministers," Rajoy told reporters after a emergency meeting with his Cabinet in Madrid that lasted more than two hours earlier Saturday, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reported to our Newscast unit.

The prime minister also said he would call for new elections in Catalonia within six months.

Rajoy's use of the so-called "nuclear option," Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows the central government to strip power from any Spanish region acting illegally, was a first for the country's 39-year-old democracy.

The prime minister's move Saturday is not the final step in a chain of procedural requirements. Spain's Senate must first vote on his plan next week. However, with the Senate operated by Rajoy's party, the measure is widely expected to pass.

Catalonia's leader and the public face of the region's independence movement, Carles Puigdemont, planned to deliver a public response to the prime minister's announcement later Saturday.

Separatist protesters also planned to demonstrate in Barcelona on Saturday.

It remains unclear whether Rajoy's actions will successfully quiet the Catalan independence movement. Many speculate that the prime minister's announcement will serve to further motivate separatists and inflame tensions.

The push within Catalonia to secede from the rest of Spain, a country composed of 17 autonomous regions, has played out in dramatic fashion over recent weeks.

Forces in favor of Catalan independence, angered by what they see as their prosperous region's subsidization via taxes of Spain's less economically successful regions, held an election on Oct. 1 over whether to secede. Roughly 90 percent of voters approved independence, although estimates showed that only half of Catalans went to the polls, as NPR's Scott Neuman reported.

Spanish courts had already ruled the election illegal, and Spain's police countered pro-independence forces, in some cases violently, in an effort to stop the vote.

Following the chaotic referendum, Rajoy demanded that Puigdemont publicly clarify whether his region had indeed moved to secede from Spain. (He additionally required that the answer be "no.") More than one deadline for the clarification came and went with Puigdemont instead choosing an ambivalent stance: He proclaimed he now possessed a "mandate" to secede but was immediately pausing independence efforts to allow for talks.

On Thursday, Rajoy said the ambiguity could not continue, paving the way for Saturday's invocation of Article 155.

The prime minister received support for his move to revoke Catalonia's autonomy this week from his opposition party, the Socialists, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to Reuters.

For its part, the European Union sidestepped any involvement in the matter.

"Institutions and member states are clear. There is no room, no space for any kind of mediation or international initiative or action," said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, according to NPR's Frayer.

She also reports the disruption from the Oct. 1 vote and subsequent protests have exacted an economic toll on Catalonia, decreasing tourism 15 percent in the region. Numerous banks and businesses have relocated to escape the turmoil.

BBC also reports that Spain downgraded its forecast for economic growth this week from 2.6 percent to 2.3 percent.

Spain's constitution, forged in 1978 as a reaction to the end of a four-decade dictatorship led by Gen. Francisco Franco, sought to decentralize power to 17 regions, with various languages and cultures. The document allowed each region sovereignty over many services such as health care and education but left responsibility for the collection and distribution of tax revenues with the central government.

Catalonia, which includes Barcelona and is Spain's most affluent region, has long harbored a fringe movement unhappy with shouldering more economic burden than other parts of the country. But this discontent grew considerably after Spain's economic crisis.

Opinion polls now indicate that Catalans are evenly split over the issue of independence.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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