Confusion as Catalan President Cancels, Reschedules Address

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By ARITZ PARRA and ELENA BECATOROS, Associated Press

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The standoff between Spain and its secessionist-minded region of Catalonia headed to a crucial juncture Thursday as Catalans awaited their president's next move amid speculation he might back off a full independence proclamation by calling a snap election.

Regional President Carles Puigdemont fueled the confusion by arranging, cancelling and then rearranging an official address for Thursday afternoon, before the region's lawmakers were set to debate their response to Spanish government plans to take direct control of Catalonia.

Later Thursday afternoon, the Catalan government announced Puigdemont would make an address after all before the parliamentary debate.

Local media had reported earlier in the day that the regional president was expected to use the address to call a snap election. The move would defuse, at least for the time being, the monthlong standoff with central authorities but that could open wounds among Catalan separatists.

The last-minute changes came amid ongoing negotiations within the ruling Catalan coalition and between politicians in Barcelona and Madrid in order to avoid a suspension of regional powers.

Catalonia's independence bid has led to Spain's deepest political crisis in the four decades since the country restored democratic rule after Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship.

The northeastern region of 7.5 million people has in a heated political battle with the Spanish government since a disputed Oct. 1 referendum on independence. Those who voted were overwhelmingly in favor, but less than half of eligible voters went to the polls in a vote that had been outlawed by Spain's Constitutional Court.

Puigdemont insists the referendum gave him the mandate to declare independence. But so far he has stopped short of proclaiming a new republic, saying he wants to give the Spanish government a chance to negotiate.

Madrid, for its part, insists it cannot negotiate secession. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is seeking to activate constitutional powers that will allow the government to take over control of much of the autonomous region's affairs. The Spanish Senate is scheduled to approve the plan to trigger Article 155 of the Constitution on Friday.

In Barcelona, a spokesman for the Catalan Republic Left party, or ERC, a separatist party that is part of the ruling coalition said the coalition was at risk of breaking apart if Puigdemont calls a snap election.

The spokesman, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of ongoing last-minute negotiations, said that if a vote was called, the party would abandon Puigdemont's government.

Puigdemont's center-right PDeCAt party and ERC have governed in a minority coalition with the support in parliament of the far-left, anti-establishment CUP party. Their unity, and the political future in Catalonia, was at stake amid the last-minute negotiations.

Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras told The Associated Press on Wednesday that a regional election would go against the mandate given by voters in a disputed referendum.

Earlier, two parliamentary officials told The Associated Press that Puigdemont had offered through mediators to call the snap election if the central government dropped the takeover bid, but that Rajoy's ruling Popular Party refused.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as the discussions were not being made public.

Popular Party Sen. Javier Arenas said a call for new regional elections would not be enough to stop the Senate. The Spanish government said it would not comment until after Puigdemont makes his stance clear.

The leading opposition Socialist party, meanwhile, says the government must stop the intervention process if Catalonia calls elections within a constitutional framework.

Puigdemont risks being charged with rebellion, something that could land him in jail.

A sudden announcement Thursday morning by Puigdemont's office that the president would address the media fuelled speculation he might be about to back off an expected full declaration of independence.

Quoting unnamed government sources, Catalonia's main newspaper La Vanguardia reported he was planning to dissolve the regional parliament and call a fresh election for Dec. 20.

It's not clear, however, that an election would solve any of Spain's problems with Catalonia as polls consistently show pro-independence parties would likely again win most seats.

Junqueras, who represents a harder pro-independence line in the ruling coalition, told the AP Wednesday that the Spanish government had left Catalonia "no other option" but to push ahead with the secession bid.

Puigdemont's cabinet, including Junqueras, held frantic meetings overnight and on Thursday morning. They were joined by the regional parliament's speaker and representatives of Assemblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural, the grassroots organizations that have been key in the independence push.

The political confusion came as thousands of university and high school students took to the streets to protest Madrid's takeover plans.

The protesters, many draped in the red and yellow Catalan flag and holding banners calling for independence, marched through central Barcelona, blocking several nearby streets as they headed to the government palace.

The atmosphere was festive as they marched past the Barcelona headquarters of Spain's national police shouting "out with the occupation forces," a slogan that has become ubiquitous in protests since police trying to halt the independence referendum clashed violently with voters.

Some protesters sang "Els Segadors," the Catalan official anthem. One student leader shouted into a microphone: "Carles, don't take a step backwards ... don't be a coward!"

Another protester, 17-year-old high-school student Albert Salgueda, said he would be disappointed if Puigdemont called elections.

"We think the only solution is a declaration of independence. We have come too far to go back now," he said. If elections were called, "we will go on strike and stop the country. This is the point of no return."

But not all the demonstrators were in favor of independence.

Seventeen-year-old Martina Gallego said that while she didn't want Catalonia to secede from Spain, she objected strongly to how the Spanish government is treating the region.

"They are taking all our rights of autonomy away," she said. "I'm not in favor of independence, but I don't think this is right."

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Joseph Wilson in Barcelona and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed.