Catalonia Leader Appears to Waver on Elections as Crisis Turns Chaotic

For more than two weeks, Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Rajoy have engaged in a game of chicken over whether the Catalan leader was ready to secede unilaterally, following a confusing address to the Catalan Parliament on Oct. 10, in which Mr. Puigdemont appeared to declare independence only to suspend it a moment later.

The pressures on both leaders have by now become formidable. Mr. Puigdemont risks decades in prison for rebellion should he push ahead with his secessionist plan.

In Madrid, Mr. Rajoy was under severe pressure by hard-liners in his conservative party not to relent in an effort to snuff out a Catalan rebellion that has become one of the gravest constitutional crises his country has faced since it adopted a democratic constitution in 1978.

Last week, Mr. Puigdemont warned in a letter to Mr. Rajoy that Catalan lawmakers would vote for a declaration of independence if Mr. Rajoy imposed direct rule on their region.

Students protested in Barcelona on Thursday against the Spanish government’s announcement it might invoke Article 155 of the national Constitution to impose direct rule on Catalonia.

Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

Mr. Rajoy’s call for Article 155 measures — never used before — would allow him to to impose direct rule in Catalonia as well as to take control of the autonomous region’s police force and broadcaster.

Those steps are still scheduled to go to a vote on Friday before the Spanish Senate, where Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party holds a majority. If the vote happens, the moves will almost certainly pass.

Even before Mr. Puigdemont’s scheduled news conference, some were calling him a traitor.

Gabriel Rufián, a Catalan separatist member of the Spanish Parliament, wrote “155 pieces of silver” in a tweet, a reference to Judas’s payment for betraying Jesus in the Bible.

And some hard-line separatist politicians said that they would quit Catalonia’s governing coalition, raising the prospect of an internal revolt that could tear apart Mr. Puigdemont’s independence movement if he calls elections.

Mr. Puigdemont’s government has been flouting Spain’s Constitution since early September, when separatist lawmakers voted on legislation to hold a binding referendum on independence on Oct. 1 as a key step toward statehood.

An alliance of separatist parties has controlled the Catalan Parliament since 2015, after winning elections, but with only 48 percent of the votes.

After the October vote, Mr. Puigdemont was under intense pressure to declare independence, since Catalans voted for secession in the highly controversial referendum, which was marred by clashes between the Spanish police and Catalan citizens.

The vote, however, took place without legal guarantees and with most Catalan opponents of independence staying away in protest. The referendum was declared illegal by Spain’s government and courts.

This month, a judge from Spain’s national court ordered prison without bail for two leaders of the Catalan independence movement, pending a trial for sedition.

Last weekend, Mr. Rajoy insisted that using Article 155 “was neither our desire nor our intention,” but instead the only way to 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.

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