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Spain’s prime minister has moved to strip Catalonia of its leadership. It’s an unprecedented act.

Mariano Rajoy’s response to the Catalan independence movement is one of the most dramatic moments in Spain’s 40 years of democracy.

Spanish Extraordinary Cabinet Session To Take Measures Against Catalonia's Independence Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced Saturday that he would set in motion a process to strip Catalonia of its leadership, relieving the regional President Carles Puigdemont of his position. Rajoy will ask the Spanish parliament to dissolve the Catalan parliament and Catalonia will then be asked to hold new elections in the region.

“This is not a suspension of home rule but the dismissal of those who lead the regional government,” Rajoy said.

If that sounds dramatic, that’s because it is. Rajoy just triggered the so-called “nuclear option”: Article 155, a never-before-used clause in the 1978 Spanish constitution that allows the central government to take unusual powers to ensure the continued unity of the state throughout the country’s 17 autonomous regions; Catalonia is one of the wealthiest.

It is an unprecedented move that comes at the end of three weeks of deep uncertainty following a highly controversial independence referendum held on October 1. That ballot was ruled illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, and the central Spanish government attempted to enforce that ruling.

The day was marked by violence. The Spanish central government sent in the civil guard, which clashed with protesters; images of police in bloody meetings with would-be voters were seen around the world.

The October 1 referendum produced a lopsided result: 90 percent of voters voted to secede from Spain. But the results were deeply skewed. Only 43 percent of the region’s eligible voters participated in the referendum. Many eligible voters boycotted the vote, believing the referendum itself was an undemocratic imposition by the Catalan secessionists who hold a whippet thin majority in the Catalan regional parliament.

Protests rocked Barcelona for days following the referendum. First came marchers calling for the right to secede and protesting police violence, then came marchers in all white, asking for dialogue with the Spanish central government. But yet another group swamped the city that was equally large: the group that wanted to remain part of Spain.

Just nine days after the referendum, on October 10, regional President Puigdemont announced that the region had won the right to declare independence. But then, immediately, he added that he was temporarily suspending the declaration of independence. Instead he asked for negotiations with Madrid.

Prime Minister Rajoy rejected the idea of talks and asked instead for a firm decision from the region.

“The cabinet has agreed this morning to formally require the Catalan government to confirm whether it has declared independence after the deliberate confusion created over whether it has come into effect,” Rajoy said the following day.

Rajoy then set a deadline of October 19 for the Catalans to formally declare independence or not. On October 16 the central government also jailed two secessionist leaders, triggering further protests in Barcelona.

When October 19 arrived, Puigdemont sent a letter to Rajoy, asking him once again for a dialogue and blaming him for escalating the conflict.

Rajoy’s answer was to call this special session of ministers held Saturday morning on how to trigger Article 155.

European Union leaders immediately signaled they stood with Rajoy. And, with the future of the region in a state of suspended animation, business has already taken action. Banks and multinational corporations based in Barcelona have begun the process of relocating their headquarters elsewhere in Spain.

The news isn’t likely to bring calm to the region.