Catalonia's ousted leader Carles Puigdemont has agreed to the snap election called by Spain's central government when it took control of the region to stop it breaking away, but he said the fight for independence would go on.
Puigdemont, speaking at a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday, also said he was not seeking asylum in Belgium after Spain's state prosecutor recommended charges for rebellion and sedition be brought against him. He would return to Catalonia when given "guarantees" by the Spanish government, he said.
Puigdemont's announcement that he would accept the regional election on Dec. 21 signalled the Madrid government had for now at least gained the upper hand in the protracted struggle over Catalonia, a wealthy northeastern region that already had considerable autonomy.
Resistance to Madrid's imposition of direct control on Catalonia failed to materialize at the start of the week and the secessionist leadership is in disarray.
But a poll released on Tuesday showed that support for the creation of an independent state of Catalonia rose to an almost three-year high in October.
Spain's Constitutional Court on Tuesday blocked the unilateral declaration of independence made by the regional parliament on Friday – a largely symbolic move that gained no traction and led to the assembly's dismissal by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy less than an hour after it was made.
"I ask the Catalan people to prepare for a long road. Democracy will be the foundation of our victory," Puigdemont said.
Rajoy, who has taken an uncompromising stance throughout the crisis, is gambling on anti-independence parties taking power in the regional parliament and putting the brakes on the independence drive. Puigdemont will hope a strong showing for the independence camp will reboot the secessionists after a tumultuous several weeks.
The Spanish government has said Puigdemont was welcome to take his chances and stand in the election. The judicial process was a separate matter, it said.
The Supreme Court also began processing rebellion charges against Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell and other senior leaders on Tuesday.
A region divided
The political crisis, Spain's gravest in the four decades since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, was triggered by an independence referendum in Catalonia on Oct. 1.
'I ask the Catalan people to prepare for a long road.' - Carles Puigdemont, ousted Catalonian president
Though it was declared illegal by Spanish courts and less than half Catalonia's eligible voters took part, the pro-secessionist regional government said the vote gave it a mandate for independence.
The United States, Britain, Germany and France have all backed Rajoy and rejected an independent Catalan state, although some have called for dialogue between the opposing sides.
Puigdemont, Vice President Oriol Junqueras and other Catalan leaders had said previously they would not accept their dismissal. But their respective parties, PdeCat and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, said on Monday they would take part in the election, a tacit acceptance of direct rule from Madrid.
The struggle has divided Catalonia itself and caused deep resentment across the rest of Spain, although separatist sentiment persists in the Basque Country and some other areas.