MADRID • Spain marked its national day yesterday with a show of unity in the face of Catalan independence efforts, a day after the central government gave the region's separatist leader a deadline to abandon his secession bid.
The country is suffering its worst political crisis in a generation after separatists in the wealthy north-east region voted in a banned Oct 1 referendum to split from Spain.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told lawmakers that Catalonia's President Carles Puigdemont has until next Monday to decide if he plans to push ahead with secession, and then until next Thursday to reconsider. Otherwise, he said, Madrid would trigger constitutional steps that could suspend Catalonia's regional autonomy.
The deadline set the clock ticking on Spain's most serious political emergency since its return to democracy four decades ago.
To mark the national holiday, Mr Rajoy and King Felipe VI attended a traditional military parade in central Madrid.
Armed forces marched along Madrid's Paseo de la Castellana boulevard to commemorate the day that Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Americas in 1492.
Separate pro-unity rallies, including one by members of a far-right movement, got under way in the Catalan capital Barcelona.
In Madrid, cheering crowds lined the streets, waving red and yellow Spanish flags and some crying "Viva Espana!" as air force jets and helicopters swooped overhead.
It is not peaceful, it is not free, it will not be recognised by Europe and now everyone knows it will have costs.
SPANISH PRIME MINISTER MARIANO RAJOY, on the banned referendum and bid for independence by Catalan separatists.
Mr Javier Corchuelo, a 28-year-old welder, came with his friends from a town south-west of the capital to witness the spectacle.
"With all that is happening I thought it was important to be here," he told Agence France-Presse. "We have to show that we support Spain."
Mr Rajoy has vowed to do everything in his power to prevent Catalan secession and his government said on Wednesday that it would take control of the region if it tried to break away.
The warning came after Mr Puigdemont announced on Tuesday that he had accepted the mandate for "Catalonia to become an independent state". He signed an independence declaration but asked regional lawmakers to suspend it to allow for dialogue with Madrid.
The legal validity of the declaration was unclear.
World leaders are watching the situation closely, and uncertainty over the fate of the region with 7.5 million people has damaged business confidence, with several listed firms already moving their legal headquarters out of Catalonia.
The region itself is deeply divided on the issue, with polls suggesting that Catalans are roughly evenly split on whether to go it alone.
While Mr Puigdemont insists the referendum gave him a mandate for independence and has said he still wants dialogue with Madrid, Mr Rajoy has rejected calls for mediation and refuses to negotiate on anything until the separatists abandon their independence drive.
"It is not peaceful, it is not free, it will not be recognised by Europe and now everyone knows it will have costs," he told lawmakers.
Mr Rajoy's announcement of the deadline was a preliminary step towards invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows Madrid to impose control over its devolved regions - an unprecedented move that some fear could lead to unrest.
"We ask for dialogue and they answer by putting Article 155 on the table. Understood," Mr Puigdemont tweeted late on Wednesday.
While separatist leaders say 90 per cent of voters opted to split from Spain in the banned referendum, less than half of the region's eligible voters actually turned out.