Spain's prime minister vowed Oct. 21 to sack Catalonia's leaders. (The Washington Post)

In a bold stroke to quash a popular secessionist movement in restive Catalonia, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vowed Saturday to remove the region’s leaders, assert control over the upstart government and press for a fresh round of elections within months.

The sweeping declaration by the central government to invoke unprecedented powers upon an autonomous region — and push aside its elected leaders — surprised Barcelona, where many people were expecting more incremental steps from Madrid. 

The announcement came after an emergency cabinet meeting Saturday, when government ministers emerged with a get-tough response to the Catalan independence referendum three weeks ago, which Spain’s Constitutional Court had declared illegal.

Rajoy said he would ask the Spanish Senate to take the unprecedented step of invoking Article 155 of Spain’s 1978 constitution, which allows the central government to suspend the region’s autonomy.

A vote in the Spanish parliament could come within days.

Spanish authorities arrested Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart, two of the most prominent pro-independence activists in Catalonia, on sedition charges on Oct. 16. Their wives spoke to the Post about their jailing. (Raul Gallego Abellan/The Washington Post)

It is not yet clear exactly what Madrid will do in Catalonia or when. It is possible that the central government will take over regional ministries, including the police force and Catalan public broadcasters.

Rajoy insisted that Madrid is not seizing control of Catalonia but is merely demanding new leadership.

“There is no country in the world ready to allow this kind of situation within its borders,” Rajoy said at a news conference. “This is not a suspension of home rule but the dismissal of those who lead the regional government.”

The regional president, Carles Puigdemont, gave an address on Catalan TV on Saturday night in Catalan, Spanish and English.

“We cannot accept these attacks,” he said. “Those who have scorned the Catalans now want to govern us. I will ask parliament to decide how to respond to these attacks on democracy and to act accordingly.”

The separatists in Catalonia, led by Puigdemont, staged a chaotic referendum this month despite the fact that the courts had declared it unconstitutional.

More than 2 million people ultimately cast ballots for independence, though the turnout for the referendum was around 40 percent of eligible voters.

Spain's prime minister says new measures being brought in will allow for direct rule over Catalonia from Madrid to counter secessionist activists. (Reuters)

In a speech shortly after the Oct. 1 vote that confused observers in Barcelona and across Spain, Puigdemont first declared independence but then “suspended” the secession process, saying that Catalonia was willing to begin talks with the central government. 

Catalonia’s calls for the European Union to mediate the dispute have not been answered, with most continental leaders backing Madrid.

On Saturday, Rajoy vehemently disputed the notion of “dialogue” with a movement his government still considers outside the rule of law.

Puigdemont “was invited to discuss his position in the Spanish parliament, but he refused,” Rajoy said. “He was invited to the conference of regional presidents, and he didn’t want to go. Dialogue is not that others have to accept a decision you already made. It is not imposing your decision to break the law.”

At a news conference Friday night at the close of the E.U. summit in Brussels, Rajoy said he was “forced to act” to preserve Spanish unity.

“It simply cannot be, in today’s Europe, that there is a country where the law is not observed,” Rajoy said.

Catalonia, with its own language and culture, already enjoys considerable autonomy, with control of its own health care, education and regional ­police.

“Catalonia is one of the regions that enjoys the most autonomy, not just in Spain, but in Europe,” said Pedro Sánchez, leader of Spain’s main opposition party, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, on Saturday. “That is what the secessionist movement wants to ruin,” he said, adding that enacting Article 155 was crucial to defending the Spanish constitution.

Rajoy said Article 155 — a “nuclear option” that has never before been tried — would be invoked “to restore institutional legality and normality.”

The prime minister has formally proposed that the measures be approved by the Spanish Senate on Friday, citing the “flagrant, obstinate and deliberate noncompliance of the Autonomous Region of Catalonia.”

Rajoy said he expected the takeover to be short-term, until elections could be held that would “recover normality and the ability to live together” and “continue with the economic recovery that is so important to people’s lives, their salaries and which the regional government of Catalonia has endangered based on their capricious desires.”

Catalan officials decried Madrid’s announcement. Josep Lluís Cleries, a spokesman for the Catalan parliament, called Rajoy’s speech “a suspension of democracy.”

The decision to invoke Article 155, he added, represented “a true coup d’état against the people of Catalonia.” 

Earlier, Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras told The Washington Post, “The citizens of Catalonia are ready to defend democracy through all legal means and rights.”

At the same time, about 7 in 10 Catalans surveyed support a call for new elections, according to a poll conducted for the Barcelona-based newspaper El Periodico.

Asked about the possibility of violence, Junqueras said: “Here the response is very simple. The Spanish government will have to explain to the world how it justifies violence against peaceful protesters.”

Pro-independence activists promised demonstrations and civil disobedience. It is possible that regional police may stop working and that civil employees will walk out. Unions could call general strikes.

During the referendum, Spanish National Police and Civil Guard officers used harsh tactics, in some cases beating voters with rubber batons and dragging people away from the ballot boxes.

It remains unclear whether new elections would solve problems for the central government, with pro-independence parties benefiting from a probable surge in popularity in recent weeks. It is also possible that Catalan parties could boycott an election pressed upon them by outsiders.

“This is a political decision. The most important one adopted by Rajoy in his whole career,” Rafa de Miguel, a leading columnist for El Pais, Spain’s newspaper of record, observed Saturday. “At least he has finally responded to the challenge. The limbo is over. The legal debates are over. Now it is time to act.”

Rolfe reported from Madrid and McAuley reported from Paris.