MADRID (AP) — Spain's constitutional court on Thursday suspended the call for a referendum on Catalonia's independence after agreeing to review an appeal by central authorities in Madrid.
The move was widely expected after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced that the government was challenging both a controversial law meant to legitimize the independence vote and a decree signed Wednesday by the regional Catalan government summoning voters for the Oct. 1 ballot.
The reaction to the court's decision by leaders in Catalonia, a prosperous region in northeastern Spain, also didn't come as a surprise. Carles Puigdemont, the regional president and one of the main promoters of the referendum, said that neither central Spanish authorities nor the courts could halt their plans.
"We will respond to the tsunami of lawsuits with a tsunami of democracy," Puigdemont told local broadcaster 8TV. He also boasted that more than 16,000 people had already registered online as volunteers and that more than half of the mayors in Catalonia were supporting the vote.
Spain's constitutional court has previously ruled that a referendum can only be called with the approval of the central authorities. But Puigdemont's pro-independence coalition claims that the universal right to self-determination overrules Spain's laws.
The Catalonia region, centered on Barcelona, generates a fifth of Spain's gross domestic product and holds 7.5 million people. It self-governs in several important areas, such as police, health and education. But key areas such as taxes, foreign affairs and most infrastructures are in the hands of the Spanish government. Both Catalan and Spanish are spoken, and many Catalans feel strongly about their cultural heritage and traditions.
The central government called the move an attack against Spain's and Catalonia's institutional order.
"That's something that the government and the courts can't allow," Rajoy said in a televised address Thursday following an urgent meeting of his cabinet. "There won't be a self-determination referendum because that would be taking away from other Spaniards the right to decide their future."
Rajoy is trying to strike a delicate balance between tamping down the secessionist defiance yet staying away from dramatic measures that would further inflame anti-Spanish sentiments, such as suspending Catalonia's autonomous powers or declaring a state of emergency, which could bring the military to the mix.
His conservative government has not disclosed what other possible actions are in the pipeline, but it has vowed to trigger all measures in a "proportional" way and "with serenity."
"The Constitution can be modified but through the rules and channels established, never through disobedience," Rajoy said.
The state prosecutor, meanwhile, announced plans for lawsuits accusing Catalan officials involved in the possible referendum of disobedience, abuse of power and embezzlement, among other charges.
One lawsuit seeks to punish members of the Catalan parliament who allowed the debate and the vote on the legal framework of the Oct. 1 referendum. A separate lawsuit was aimed at Puigdemont and the other members of his cabinet who signed the referendum decree.
Chief state prosecutor Jose Manuel Maza said prosecutors and police forces in Catalonia have been told to investigate and stop any actions taken to celebrate the referendum. Businesses who print tickets for the ballot, produce commercials to advertise it or provide ballot services to the Catalan government could also be legally liable.
He said the measures were aimed at "guaranteeing the constitutional coexistence framework" in Spain.
Although much of the blame for the institutional crisis has been put on the pro-independence bloc in the Catalan parliament, Rajoy's conservative government is being targeted by other political parties for letting the situation get this far.
The pro-independence bloc has argued that full control would benefit Catalonia. The idea gained support amid the high unemployment and harsh austerity measures that came as a result of Spain's 2008-2013 financial crisis.
A return to solid growth, however, has weakened public backing for independence.
Catalan leaders have pledged to proclaim a new republic within 48 hours if the "yes" side wins the referendum, regardless of turnout.