Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced Saturday he would dismiss Catalonia's separatist government and call for new elections in an attempt to prevent the semi-autonomous region from declaring its independence.
Rajoy made the announcement after an emergency Cabinet meeting to deal with the political crisis caused by secession efforts undertaken by the regional leadership of Catalonia.
Rajoy's office invoked Article 155 of Spain's constitution, which gives the government the power to take away some or all of Catalonia's autonomy. Opposition political parties have agreed to support the imposition of central rule over Catalonia. Rajoy is nearly certain to get the required votes next week from Spain's upper legislative body, which is ruled by Rajoy's conservative party.
Carles Puidgemont, Catalonia's leader, said the prime minister's move was "the worst attack on institutions and Catalan people" since the era Francisco Franco, and called for a meeting of the Catalan parliament. Franco was Spain's military dictator from 1939 to his death in 1975.
"Mariano Rajoy has announced a de facto coup d'etat with he goal of ousting a democratically elected government," said Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell. She said Rajoy's new move is "an authoritarian blow within a member of the European Union."
Rajoy said Saturday Puidgemont's threat to secede "has been unilateral, contrary to the law, and seeking confrontation."
Barcelona police say 450,000 demonstrators took to the streets in the regional capital Saturday with many waving Catalonia's red and yellow separatist flag. Some protesters shouted "freedom" and "independence."
WATCH: Jamie Dettmer's report from Barcelona
"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.
Voters in Catalonia voted in favor of independence in the October 1 referendum, but fewer than half of those eligible to cast a ballot took part, with opponents boycotting the process. Rajoy's government dismissed the referendum as illegal.