What was only a limited worry just a few weeks ago in Spain has now blown up into a full constitutional crisis. The New York Times reports that the Prime Minister of Spain has concluded deliberations on the question of Catalonian independence and will move as soon as this week to disband the regional government, allowing Madrid to take direct control of the region. It’s also possible that the Catalonian leaders who organized the recent independence referendum could find themselves on trial.

This was, as they acknowledge, just about the most severe move that Madrid could make short of sending in armed troops. And it may still come to that.

The escalating confrontation over Catalonia’s independence drive took its most serious turn on Saturday as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain announced he would remove the leadership of the restive region and initiate a process of direct rule by the central government in Madrid.

It was the first time that Spain’s government had moved to strip the autonomy of one of its 17 regions, and the first time that a leader had invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — a broad tool intended to protect the “general interests” of the nation.

The unexpectedly forceful moves by Mr. Rajoy, made after an emergency cabinet meeting, thrust Spain into uncharted waters. The prime minister is trying to put down one of the gravest constitutional crises his country has faced since embracing democracy after the death of its dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.

I can’t even work in a good Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead joke here because the situation is growing all too serious. Prime Minister Rajoy has acted decisively but also opened the door to a number of possible scenarios which could backfire on him. While a more diplomatic exit from this crisis might have made him look weaker, the measures required to enforce this new decree may stir opposition to him not only across Catalonia, but at home in Madrid as well. Doug Mataconis outlines some of the perils awaiting him at Outside the Beltway.

How far are the pro-independence authorities in Barcelona willing to go in this matter? Are they truly serious about independence or is this just part of a populist appeal on their part in an effort to enhance their own political position? And what about Prime Minister Rajoy? He seems to have the support of Parliament in his actions, but will that last if the situation in Barcelona spins out of control, especially since it would be relatively easy for the rest Spain’s political parties to force new elections if they wanted to? And how will be people of Catalonia, and more generally of Spain, react if the central government does move to remove the Catalan leadership and try them for sedition? The answers to all these questions could unfold very rapidly and would have serious implications for the future in Spain.

All very true. While Rajoy seems to have hold of a fairly secure base of support (even among some in Catalonia) that only lasts as long as the government in Barcelona remains reasonable. The independence-minded region may be troubling to some, but we need to remember that they are still Spaniards. The rest of the country may begin taking a much dimmer view of this “solution” if some of their fellow countrymen – elected officials at that – are rounded up, put on trial for sedition and locked in jail.

Take that one step further and imagine if this move fuels the independence movement in Catalonia to the point where there are violent protests in the streets. If Rajoy has to send in the troops to bring things under control and winds up with some dead protesters, his support could erode overnight. If that happens, their parliamentary system would allow for snap elections which could see Rajoy out of power quickly, leaving his successor with an ugly mess to clean up.

Complicating matters further is the fact that Catalonia is one of the more prosperous regions in Spain. That gives them a certain amount of leverage and influence with leaders on the outside. Thus far the United States, the EU and pretty much everyone else have been willing to leave this as an internal matter for Spain to sort out on its own. But if it turns into an armed rebellion and the response from Madrid is seen as being too brutal, that could change as well.