BARCELONA • Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has warned Catalonia's government against declaring independence, as more than 350,000 people took part in a pro-unity rally in Barcelona yesterday.
In his sternest warning yet, Mr Rajoy said he would sack the Catalan government if it declared independence and also suspend the region's autonomous status.
This came as Catalonia's separatist President Carles Puigdemont prepares to address the regional Parliament tomorrow evening, when he could make a declaration of independence.
But as the Oct 1 vote revealed, not all Catalans want to leave Spain.
Yesterday, Catalans calling themselves a "silent majority" took to the streets of Barcelona, the region's capital. Protesters rallied in the city centre, waving Spanish and Catalan flags and banners that said "Catalonia is Spain" and "Together we are stronger".
"We have perhaps been silent too long," said Mr Alejandro Marcos, 44. "It seems that the one who yells the most wins the argument. So we have to raise our voices and say loud and clear that we do not want independence."
Police said the anti-independence rally drew 350,000 people.
Some key points in independence plan
When will Catalonia declare independence?
The referendum law passed on Sept 6 by Catalonia's regional Parliament stipulated that a win by the "yes" side "implies the independence of Catalonia". The declaration of independence must be approved by the assembly "two days after" the ratification of the referendum results, a formal step that has not yet been taken.
The big question is when the Catalan government will start this countdown. It says the "yes" side won 90.18 per cent of the 2.29 million votes cast in the vote, which did not meet international electoral standards. The turnout was just 43 per cent as Catalans who prefer to remain in Spain largely boycotted the polls.
Spain's Constitutional Court suspended the referendum law shortly after it was passed while it considers arguments that it is unconstitutional.
Would it be independent immediately?
Once Catalonia declares independence, a so-called "Law on Transition" would come into effect establishing the region as a "democratic and social" republic, and opening a period for it to set up its own laws and institutions.
Once a Constitution is in place, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont would become head of state. But the Catalan government has not provided details regarding what means it has to assume the classic duties of a state, such as border controls and defence.
The Constitutional Court has also suspended the "Law on Transition".
Would it be legal?
Catalonia is a region of about 7.5 million people with its own distinct language and culture.
The Catalan authorities argue that Madrid left them no option but to unilaterally call the independence referendum, as Spain's central government repeatedly refused to agree to a legal plebiscite.
Catalonia's referendum law establishes an "exceptional legal regime" that "prevails hierarchically over all norms which it may conflict with", meaning it overrides other laws.
All this goes against the Constitutional Court, which has repeatedly said that Spain's 1978 Constitution does not allow regions to call independence referendums.
Catalonia's independence would need to be recognised internationally, and so far no country has said it would back a new Catalan republic.
Some protesters called for Mr Puigdemont to be jailed for holding the referendum in defiance of the Spanish government and courts.
"The unity of Spain cannot be voted on or negotiated - it must be defended," read one sign.
Mr Rajoy had, until the weekend, been vague on whether he would use Article 155 of the Constitution, the so-called nuclear option that allows him to sack the regional government and call a local election.
Asked if he was ready to trigger Article 155, he told El Pais newspaper: "I don't rule out anything that is within the law... Ideally, we shouldn't have to take drastic solutions but for that not to happen, there would have to be changes."
He added: "Spain will continue being Spain."
The slogan for the Barcelona rally organised by the Societat Civil Catalana, the main anti-independence group in Catalonia, was "Enough, let's recover good sense!"
Last Saturday, tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in Madrid and other cities across Spain to demand dialogue to end the dispute.
Tensions soared after police cracked down on voters during the banned Oct 1 independence referendum, prompting separatist leaders to warn that they would unilaterally declare independence in days.
Tentative signs emerged last Friday that the two sides may be seeking to defuse the crisis after Madrid offered a first apology to Catalans injured by police during the vote.
But uncertainty remains as Catalan leaders have not backed off from their plans. It remains unclear what Mr Puigdemont plans to say in the Catalan Parliament tomorrow.
Mr Rajoy in the interview assured Catalan leaders that there "is still time" to backtrack and avoid triggering a tough response from the central government in Madrid.
Demands for independence in Catalonia, a region of about 7.5 million people with their own language and cultural traditions, date back centuries but surged in recent years during a period of economic difficulty.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS