The Spanish government announced an unprecedented plan Saturday to sack Catalonia's separatist leaders, install its own people in their place and call a new local election, using previously untapped constitutional powers to take control of the prosperous region that is threatening to secede.
Even moderate Catalans were aghast at the scope of the move, and the announcement was met with banging pots and honking cars in the streets of Barcelona. The city's mayor, Ada Colau, who opposes independence without a valid referendum, called Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's measures "a serious attack" on the self-government of Catalonia.
Others went further — Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell accused Spain's central authorities of carrying out a coup.
"Mariano Rajoy has announced a de facto coup d'etat with the goal of ousting a democratically elected government," Forcadell said, calling it "an authoritarian blow within a member of the European Union."
After a special Cabinet session, Rajoy said he wants the country's Senate to allow central ministers to take over the jobs of all senior members of the Catalan government, including control over the regional police, finances and the public media.
In an effort to derail the Catalan independence movement, Rajoy is also seeking the Senate's approval next week to assume the power to call a regional election — something that only Catalonia's top leader can do now.
In response, protesters wrapped in red-and-yellow Catalan flags flooded the streets of central Barcelona, holding up signs calling for freedom.
About 450,000 people joined the protest, according to police, although an anti-secession group put the number at 85,000. The demonstration had originally been called to protest the detention of two prominent pro-independence activists who are awaiting possible sedition charges, but it turned into an outcry over Rajoy's move.
"We are here because the Spanish government made a coup without weapons against the Catalan people and their government institutions," said Joan Portet, a 58-year-old protester.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who was speaking on television later Saturday, has threatened to call a vote in the regional parliament for an explicit declaration of independence from Spain.
Rajoy said he is using Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution in order to "restore normalcy" in the country, which faces its most grave institutional crisis in decades with Catalonia's independence movement. He said a new regional election in Catalonia should be held in the next six months.
"There is no country in the world ready to allow this kind of situation within its borders," Rajoy said Saturday. "It is my wish to call elections as soon as normality is restored."
Rajoy's party enjoys a majority in the Senate and he has the backing of the main opposition parties to quash independence for Catalonia and maintain Spain's territorial integrity.
Article 155 gives central authorities to intervene when one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions fails to comply with the law. It's never been applied since the 1978 Constitution was adopted, and Rajoy's conservative government called it a move of last resort.
The slow-burning constitutional crisis over secession escalated this month when regional government officials held a disputed independence referendum on Oct. 1. They then declared the result — which was strongly in favor of independence — gave them a legal basis for separating from Spain even though the vote itself had numerous problems.
The country's Constitutional Court has so far ruled against all moves toward secession, including the Catalan referendum. The court's website appeared to be offline Saturday, and a spokeswoman said it had been affected by vandalism. She requested anonymity in line with internal rules.
Spain's National Security Department said slogans supporting independence for Catalonia had popped up amid cyberattacks on a number of government websites.
Albert Rivera, head of the pro-business Citizens party, said he backed Rajoy's measures because Catalonia needs to restore social unity and legal security so companies can remain in the region. Hundreds of companies have transferred their registered headquarters out of Catalonia to other areas in Spain, fearing the chaos that independence — or the fight over it — could bring.
Basque nationalists and the far-left Podemos party were among those opposing the government's move.
"We are in shock about the suspension of democracy in Catalonia," said Podemo's Pablo Echenique, vowing to work to oust Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party.
Barcelona resident Rosa Isart said the Spanish government's determination to prevent Catalonia from leaving Spain reminded her of the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco four decades ago.
"It seems unbelievable that I have to see this again, because of the incompetence of these politicians who don't know how to speak to each other," Isart said.
Others were sympathetic to Rajoy's move. Barcelona resident Carlos Assensio said he agreed with Madrid, given the separatists' refusal to abide by Spain's laws.
"For the sake of a good co-existence, if we don't respect the law this could be a total anarchy," said the 65-year-old.
By Aritz Parra. Pietro DeCristofaro and Vicente Marquez in Barcelona contributed.