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With attempt to end stalemate rebuffed by Madrid, Catalonia takes Spain over the edge

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The collision-course political crisis that’s wracked Spain for nearly a month seemed ready to end in detente early Thursday, with reports that Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont would back down on independence and call new elections to replace his government there.

But after a tumultuous day of delayed and canceled speeches and tense negotiations with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government in Madrid, Puigdemont abruptly reversed course late in the day. Elections are off, independence is likely back on, and Madrid is intent on seizing Catalonia’s government and revoking its 40-year-old autonomy under the same Constitution that Puigdemont violated by seeking independence.

Puigdemont’s earlier attempt at surrender was meant to secure the continued political autonomy of the state and avoid a potentially bloody takeover from the central Madrid government.

But Madrid wouldn’t taking “yes” for an answer, prompting Puigdemont to delay and then cancel a planned mid-day speech on the peaceful resolution of the crisis. Rajoy, a conservative nationalist whose own political fate benefits from the contorted politics of Spanish nationalism, would not agree to cancel his government’s plans to invoke the never-before-used Article 155 of the Constitution and take over Catalonia — by force, if necessary.

Hours later, the Catalan president announced his speech was back on — but with very different content: No elections, no rapprochement, and no deal. “Article 155 is an illegal move seeking to eradicate not just independentism but the entire Catalan tradition,” he said. “Nobody can say that I have been unwilling to make sacrifices, yet once again we see they want the responsibility to lie with just one side.”

For nearly a month since a violence-marred referendum on full independence from Spain, the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia has seemed bent on prompting open, armed civil conflict inside Europe’s fourth-largest economy. Rajoy’s government took a harder line than usual with the separatist movement in Barcelona, arresting public officials and sending in national police to physically disrupt voting stations — and giving Puigdemont’s cause a sympathetic veneer it would not otherwise have engendered with many Spaniards.

The resulting conflict took Spain to the edge of fracture, with Catalan leader Puigdemont sorta, kinda declaring independence and Rajoy sorta, kinda declaring that Catalonia’s regional autonomy was canceled. The king went on television to give a national address on the crisis, a rarity for a monarch usually limited to annual Christmas addresses to the people. Ultimatums flew back and forth, backed with the threat of armed men — only for Puigdemont’s team to decide the time had come to back down, step aside, and trade their own governing roles for the future sanctity of Catalan autonomy.

Rajoy’s rejection of that — or refusal, as Puigdemont put it Thursday, to provide “guarantees” of Catalan’s future self-rule within Spain — brings the crisis to rock bottom.

Catalonia’s independence vote never carried political legitimacy and was always conducted outside the letter of Spain’s 40-year-old democratic constitution. That document grants Catalonia greater political autonomy than most of the numerous other governing units of federalist Spain, a nod to the region’s longstanding cultural, linguistic, and economic differences from the other historic kingdoms stapled together to make Spain in the 15th century. But it does not allow a vote for outright secession, something Puigdemont and the leave campaign characterize as a fundamental human right that cannot be abridged by any law.

Just 2.3 million Catalans cast “yes” votes on October 1, perhaps in part because police succeeded in shuttering hundreds of polling places — but also because the “yes” vote was only polling at 40 percent of the voting public in the run-up to October. The low-turnout result gave Puigdemont a technical fulcrum for declaring that the people he represents had voted for nationhood — by a nine-to-one margin, once the few votes cast were counted.

But with unionist Catalans traditionally staying home when such referenda are called, and other European leaders decrying the separatist move as illegitimate, the would-be nation-builder soon had few real options. Rajoy’s aggressive, hard-line approach cut off other avenues.

All that remains for their bilateral brinksmanship is for the drab-shirted Guardia Civil — in an aesthetic echo of the Spanish Civil War, where a fascist military coup eventually overran a socialist government that had fled to Barcelona — to sweep in and make arrests. Puigdemont’s separatist movement, which has never actually shown majority support from the nearly 8 million strong population of his state, asked citizens to surround government buildings in Barcelona and deny the national police entry on Thursday morning.

Thousands remain in the streets there as of the conclusion of Puigdemont’s remarks.

The thousands who rallied around Catalan government buildings all day Thursday came out at first in fear that Rajoy would order the Guardia Civil in to arrest officials and seize buildings. For hours during the day, the crowds turned agitated against Puigdemont himself, chanting against the idea of new elections and for independence. Now, it seems, they’ve gotten their wish.

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