Catalonia is expected to pass a law Wednesday laying the groundwork for an independence referendum on October 1 which is fiercely opposed by Madrid, setting a course for Spain’s deepest political crisis in decades.
Catalonia’s regional parliament agreed to vote on the disputed bill with 72 votes in favor, 60 against and three abstentions amid jeers from opponents of independence for the wealthy northeastern region of Spain.
During the vote, small groups of protesters both for and against independence rallied outside the parliament.
Pro-separatist lawmakers, who control the regional assembly, are expected to pass the bill later on Wednesday, ignoring a ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court that has deemed the proposed law unconstitutional.
Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and other top Catalan government officials will then swiftly sign it.
Carlos Carrizosa of the center-right Ciudadanos, the main opposition grouping in the Catalan parliament, accused the pro-separatist lawmakers of “diminishing” the regional assembly and “transforming it into a mere theatre”.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to immediately challenge the law in the Constitutional Court. His government has also threatened legal action against top Catalan political figures involved in the plebiscite.
The government’s response to passage of the law will be “agile but not hasty”, Public Works Minister Inigo de la Serna said Wednesday during a TV interview.
In a tweet, the president of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, said she had requested that judges at the Constitutional Court be disqualified, calling them “another extension of the state which has lost all legitimacy.”
The majority of the court’s judges have been nominated by conservative lawmakers.
Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people with its own language and culture that accounts for about one-fifth of Spain’s economic output, has significant powers over matters such as education, healthcare and welfare.
But Spain’s economic doldrums and a perception that the region pays more in taxes than it receives in investments and transfers from Madrid have helped push the cause of secession from the fringes of Catalan politics to center-stage.
Adding to the rise in separatist sentiment has been a 2010 ruling by the Constitutional Court which struck down parts of a 2006 autonomy charter which granted new powers to Catalonia and recognized it as “a nation”.
Lawmakers who back independence won an absolute majority in the 135-seat Catalan regional parliament for the first time in a September 2015 election. The government that emerged from that vote vowed to begin the process of breaking away from Spain.
Rajoy responded by promising new investments in Catalonia and regularly sent his deputy to the region but made no significant reforms regarding the division of powers that addressed Catalan concerns.