Three ministers have resigned expressing doubts over the referendum on independence from Spain planned for October 1 as Madrid piles pressure on the regional Catalonia government.
Three prominent members of Catalonia's government have quit after cracks emerged in the Spanish region's separatist executive just months before a planned independence referendum opposed by Madrid.
Catalonia leader Carles Puigdemont said on Friday that ministers in charge of interior matters and education, as well as government spokeswoman Neus Munte, had stepped aside.
He did not give a reason for their departure, but Catalonia's executive has recently been embroiled in heated debate over the vote planned for October 1 as Madrid piles pressure on members of the northeastern regional government.
How it started
The first major sign of tensions came earlier this month when Jordi Baiget, Minister of Business and Knowledge, expressed doubts over whether the referendum could ever take place, given the power of Madrid.
Puigdemont promptly announced Baiget's departure, a decision that was criticised by some of the most fervent supporters of independence.
Madrid is fiercely opposed to a referendum in Catalonia, a 7.5-million-strong region with its own customs and language that has long sought more autonomy.
It deems such a vote illegal and a threat to Spain's unity.
The Constitutional Court has already quashed a resolution approved by Catalonia's parliament calling for the referendum to take place.
It has also warned Catalonia's elected officials that they will face legal consequences if they take any steps towards holding such a vote.
And there is a precedent. Catalonia's former president Artur Mas was banned from holding office for two years for organising a referendum in 2014.
The vote he held was merely symbolic and non-binding.
The referendum planned for October, though, will be binding according to Catalonia's executive, which has said it will declare independence within 48 hours if the region's voters opt to separate from Spain.
Civil servants in Catalonia are also in a tough situation, struggling to decide whose orders to follow — those of their Catalan bosses or of the national government in Madrid.
They will be called upon to organise the referendum by carrying out such steps as opening schools to serve as polling stations, or policing the region.
If they disobey orders from their Catalan bosses, they could face disciplinary action but if they obey, they will go against Spanish law and will therefore face sanctions, which could even lead to job losses.
Madrid has also warned companies against any involvement in the referendum, such as providing ballot boxes for the vote.
As pressure mounts, cracks emerged this week between Puigdemont and his number two Oriol Junqueras, who had refused to be put in charge of organising a referendum.
He wanted the entire executive to take responsibility for such a controversial vote.
As a result, Puigdemont decided to talk to each and every government member. Friday's resignations could mean that those who stepped aside were not ready to take that responsibility.
The trio has been replaced by three people deemed loyal to the cause, including Jordi Turull who will become the regional government's new spokesman.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy described the latest developments as "purging those who had doubts," adding he believed this was "yet another demonstration of the drift towards authoritarianism" of the Catalan executive.
Catalans themselves are divided on the issue of independence.
A total of 48.5 percent are against independence and 44.3 percent are in favour, according to a recent regional government poll — although a large majority want a referendum to settle the matter once and for all.