People in a bar watch the speech of Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont on television in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017.
People in a bar watch the speech of Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont on television in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017.

BARCELONA - Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont kept Spain in suspense by again failing to declare independence for his region, following an October 1 referendum in which 90 percent of Catalans who cast ballots voted for secession.

The Spanish government denounced the referendum as unconstitutional and used police to try to block the vote, limiting voter participation to about 50 percent.

"We seem to be the only ones who are under pressure," said Puigdemont at a press conference held at the regional government palace in Barcelona, in which he accused the central government of repressing Catalans and "rejecting dialogue."

The Catalan leader expressed wishes to reach a negotiated solution with the central government over the independence impasse, which has divided Catalans and caused a nationalist backlash in the rest of Spain.

Speculation was rife earlier in the day that Puigdemont would defuse the growing crisis by calling for snap elections. But he discarded that possibility during his press conference by saying that conditions did not exist for a vote.

Puigdemont was expected to declare independence before the Catalan parliament two weeks ago, but instead deferred his decision pending negotiations with the central government that have not materialized.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has insisted that Puigdemont retract his call for independence and has initiated steps to impose direct rule on Catalonia in accordance with Article 155 of Spain's constitution, which says the central government may, "if a self-governing community does not fulfill the obligations imposed upon it ... take all measures necessary to compel the community to meet said obligations." 

The Spanish government is already virtually running Catalonia's finances and intervening the regional police, whose chief, Major Josep Lluis Trapero, faces removal.

Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria urged the Spanish Senate on Thursday to formally approve direct rule in Catalonia. She accused Puigdemont of refusing to negotiate by turning down invitations to present his case before Spain's Congress of Deputies, the lower house of Spain's parliament.

Committee members attend the upper house Senate co
Lawmakers attend a Senate committee meeting to review measures of article 155 which, if approved, would impose direct rule on Catalonia, revoking the wealthy region's autonomy, at the Senate, in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 24, 2017.

Reaction from EU, business community

The European Union has firmly backed the Spanish government in its efforts to maintain national unity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that any solution has to be in the framework of Spain's constitution.

Puigdemont also seems abandoned by the business community, with an exodus of major companies from Catalonia, whose main city, Barcelona, has long been a commercial hub. Hundreds of major Catalan firms — including two of Spain's biggest banks — have moved their headquarters to other parts of Spain since the October 1 referendum.

But his shaky regional government depends on the support of radical separatists and leftist parties, which give him a narrow majority in the regional parliament.

One of the parties, the CUP, denounced a call for elections attributed to Puigdement on Thursday as "treason."

Several members of Puigdemont's own PEDECAT party have also threatened to resign if he backtracks on independence or calls elections which his coalition could likely lose.

Thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Catalan parliament building Thursday to urge regional lawmakers to vote for independence.

The government jailed two separatist leaders last week and has threatened to immediately detain Puigdemont if he declares independence.