Despite intense speculation that he was planning to defuse the situation by announcing elections in return for a similar show of good faith from Spain’s ruling People’s party (PP), Puigdemont said it would be up to the Catalan parliament to decide how to respond to Madrid’s unprecedented actions.
“We have not received the necessary guarantees to justify holding elections,” he said in an address at the regional government palace in Barcelona on Thursday afternoon.
“We have tried to get them but we have not had a responsible response from the PP and they have chosen to increase the tension. I have run out of options.”
Puigdemont was speaking a day before the Spanish senate is due to approve a series of measures to strip his administration of its powers and call new elections within the next six months, under article 155 of the Spanish constitution.
The Catalan government will debate its response to the invocation of 155 in a plenary session on Thursday and Friday at which regional MPs could vote in favour of a unilateral declaration of independence.
Puigdemont said that although Catalan society had done its best to remain calm in the face of the Spanish government’s threats, he would not tolerate its efforts to take control of the region.
“The measures under 155 are illegal and unjust and I am not prepared to accept them,” he said. “No one can accuse me of not being willing to make sacrifices.”
In a letter to the senate earlier on Thursday, Puigdemont had argued that 155 did not give the central government a “blank cheque”, adding that its use would create “an even more serious, extraordinary situation” if it seized Catalonia’s political autonomy.
The Catalan leader has been under pressure from different factions within the region. Some had been urging him to cool tempers by announcing elections while the main independence civil society groups and some of his coalition partners have called for an unambiguous declaration of independence.
Reports earlier on Thursday that he was preparing to hold elections and abandon his pledge to declare independence brought a swift and angry response from many of his allies.
The Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party, part of Puigdemont’s ruling coalition, said it would abandon the government if the president called elections.
Gabriel Rufián, an ERC MP in Madrid, implied that Puigdemont had betrayed the independence movement, tweeting: “155 pieces of silver,” while Adrià Alsina, the press secretary of the grassroots Catalan National Assembly, tweeted: “Frau, Fraude, Fraud.”
Meanwhile, the far-left CUP party said it would not support elections, adding that the unilateral independence referendum held on 1 October had yielded a popular mandate.
The uncertainty brought thousands of people, many of them students, into Plaça de Sant Jaume in central Barcelona to protest outside the government palace.
Manel Llado, a 56-year-old administrator, came to the rally after work as he was concerned that a unilateral declaration of independence was no longer a done deal.
“A lot of people said Puigdemont betrayed us,” he said. “But it seems to me like a perfect government. I think this is a strategy to see what the central government will do: if they stop 155, they’ll call an election.”
Marta Homs, who was attending her first demonstration, said she wanted to ensure her voice was heard. “It’s a bit confusing,” said the 19-year-old student. “I like to think Puigdemont knows what he’s doing. It’s the first time I’ve tried to believe a politician; usually I don’t trust them.”
A fellow student, 18-year-old Jaume Cortasa, said the Madrid government and other opponents of independence had a clear strategy when it came to dealing with the Catalan question: “Whatever arguments you present them with, they’re going to continue rejecting them until they have something that suits them; until the independence-supporting parties are shut down.”
Miquel Berga, a professor of English literature at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, said images of Catalans being beaten by Spanish police as they tried to vote in the unilateral independence referendum held on 1 October had been “a great asset for the fight to obtain a legal referendum on the issue”.
But, he added: “A unilateral declaration of independence, although it would bring an emotional release for many supporters, would supersede those powerful images, cause them to fade, and create more uncertainties and division in Catalonia.”
On Thursday, Spain’s economy minister, Luis de Guindos, said officials dispatched from Madrid to oversee the implementation of 155 could face resistance. He told Spanish radio: “I hope that [Catalan] civil servants, who are highly professional … will be conscious that any act against Catalan society will be negative.”
Tensions between the governments in Madrid and Barcelona have risen to new heights following Puigdemont’s decision to defy Spain’s constitutional court by holding the referendum earlier this month.
Although Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence two weeks ago, he has proposed that its effects be suspended for two months to allow for talks.
Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has refused to engage in dialogue with Puigdemont until he abandons his independence plans and has said there can be no international mediation on a domestic, constitutional issue.
On Wednesday, Rajoy said Puigdemont’s disregard for the constitution had left him with no choice but to invoke article 155.
According to the regional government, 43% of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters took part in the referendum on 1 October, but a further 770,000 votes were lost after Spanish police tried to halt the vote. The Catalan government said it was not including those votes in its final turnout tally.