Spain's highest court has halted a push for independence by the northeastern region of Catalonia, ruling Wednesday that secession would be unconstitutional.

From Madrid, Lauren Frayer told NPR's Newscast unit that the decision, which was widely expected, came unusually quickly:

"In its ruling, Spain's Constitutional Court affirmed the country's unity — and said, therefore, Catalonia can't declare independence, secede, and divide the country."

On Nov. 9, as we reported, the Catalan regional parliament approved a plan to split from Spain within 18 months, and declared that decisions taken by Spain's government, including rulings by the courts, are no longer valid.

"Catalans are split about 50-50 over whether to break away from Spain," Lauren says. "But their regional parliament is dominated by separatists."

The secession vote was quickly challenged by Spain's center-right government, and government officials Wednesday praised the Constitutional Court's ruling.

In Spain as a whole, secession remains unpopular, and the controversy has become a factor in the upcoming national elections, The Financial Times reported recently. It adds:

"The latest escalation comes less than a month before Spain's general election, which has added to the already febrile atmosphere among political leaders in Madrid and Barcelona."Mariano Rajoy, Spain's conservative prime minister, is hoping to sway undecided voters by presenting himself as a committed defender of Spanish unity — and by tapping into the rising anti-Catalan sentiment in the rest of the country."

Rajoy welcomed the Constitutional Court's ruling.

"The immense majority of Spaniards who believe in Spain, national sovereignty and the equality of Spaniards will be very pleased," he said in a speech.

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