Spain marked its national day Thursday 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 northeastern region voted in a banned referendum on October 1 to split from Spain.
To mark the national holiday, Prime Minister Mariano 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.
Spanish unity rally
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.
Javier Corchuelo, a 28-year-old welder, came with his friends from a town southwest of the capital to witness the spectacle.
“With all that is happening I thought it was important to be here,” he told AFP. “We have to show that we support Spain.”
Rajoy has vowed to do everything in his power to prevent Catalan secession and his government said Wednesday that it would take control of the region if it tried to break away.
The warning came after Catalonia’s president Carles Puigdemont announced 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.
Rajoy told lawmakers that Puigdemont had until next Monday to decide if he planned to push ahead with secession and then until next Thursday to reconsider, otherwise 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.
World leaders are watching closely and uncertainty over the fate of the region of 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 Catalans are roughly evenly split on whether to go it alone.
While Puigdemont insists the October 1 referendum gave him a mandate for independence and has said he still wants dialogue with Madrid, 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.
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,” Puigdemont tweeted late Wednesday.
While separatist leaders say 90 percent of voters opted to split from Spain in the banned October referendum, less than half of the region’s eligible voters actually turned out.
Several rallies were called Thursday in Barcelona, including one by far-right activists.
Around 150 gathered to march against secession from Barcelona’s Plaza de Espana, flanked by Catalan police.
“There has been a coup d’etat,” said a man who gave his name only as Eduardo.
He was carrying the flag of the Falange, a Spanish far-right nationalist movement founded in the 1930s.
“The Spanish have to react to defend the nation,” he told AFP.
Marchers chanted: “Puigdemont, go to jail”.
Pro-unity demonstrators held other rallies in Barcelona, following a mass demonstration against Catalan independence at the weekend.
“Today is a special day, we have to go ahead.. we are many more” than the separatists, said retired Barcelona resident Eliseo Valbuena Garcia.
Catalonia, which accounts for about one-fifth of Spain’s economic output, already enjoys significant powers over matters such as education and healthcare.
But Spain’s economic strains during the world financial crisis have helped push the cause of secession from the fringes of Catalan politics to centre stage.
Separatists say Catalonia pays more in taxes than it receives in investments and transfers from Madrid.
Puigdemont insisted Wednesday that “the majority of Catalan people want Catalonia as an independent state.” Rajoy dismissed his plan as “a fairytale”.