BARCELONA, Spain -- Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Wednesday issued a blistering denunciation of Catalonia's regional independence referendum Oct. 1 and raised the threat of Madrid imposing direct rule on the northeast region.
The Spanish leader's stinging rebuke, delivered at a somber session of the national parliament, marked a deepening of Spain's worst political crisis in decades. It puts Catalonia's separatist-minded leaders on notice that constitutional measures whose use is unprecedented in the country's democratic history could be employed to halt the region's independence bid.
"One thing is absolutely clear: Our democracy is experiencing one of the gravest moments in its history," Rajoy said. Spain "cannot be fragmented unless its citizens choose."
That echoed Madrid's standing contention that the country as a whole would have to vote on the independence question.
Earlier, Rajoy demanded formal clarification of what he called a confusing speech a day earlier by Catalonia's regional president, Carles Puigdemont -- and said his query was being made in the context of Article 155, which gives the central government the authority to stage an administrative takeover in a Spanish region.
In a closely watched address to Catalonia's regional parliament, Puigdemont had said Tuesday that the outcome of the Oct. 1 vote in the region gave Catalonia the right to declare independence. But he then suspended applying the referendum result, which was overwhelmingly in favor of breaking away from Spain, though fewer than half of the 5.3 million eligible voters went to the polls.
"The people have determined that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic," Puigdemont said while also calling for dialogue with Madrid.
In his speech, Rajoy left open the prospect of talks, but not while any demand for independence remains active.
"Everything can be subject to dialogue, but not with parties who are espousing threats," he told lawmakers. He received a standing ovation from parliamentarians when he closed with a call for a return to unity and stability.
The European Union has sided with Spain in its contention that the referendum was illegal, and neighboring European countries including France and Germany have said they would not recognize an independent Catalonia.