Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy answers a question during a news conference at Moncloa Palace in Madrid on September 29, 2014. The Spanish government on Monday formally asked the constitutional court to declare illegal Catalonia's planned vote on independence from Spain, Rajoy said in a televised statement. Picture: Andrea Comas

Madrid - The Spanish Constitutional Court on Monday provisionally blocked a proposed independence referendum by the Spanish province of Catalonia.

The court's ruling means that Catalonia, unlike Scotland, may not go forward with plans to hold a referendum it scheduled for November 9. Scottish voters rejected independence in the referendum held in the British province on September 18.

But Catalan voters won't get that chance, at least not so soon. Within a few hours of hearing the case, the court in Madrid ruled unanimously in favour of Spain's government, which had gone to the court to block the independence vote.

But the ruling only suspends the referendum and is valid for a maximum of five months. When the period runs out, the court can either lift the suspension or extend it until the court rules definitively on the matter.

Defying opposition from the central government in Madrid, Catalan President Artur Mas on Saturday signed a decree that would have allowed more than seven million inhabitants of the wealthy region to vote on whether it should become its own state and whether that state should be independent.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had called such a vote unconstitutional because it would not involve all Spaniards.

“Neither the goal nor the process of voting is constitutional,” he said during a special session in Madrid prior to the court's decision Monday.

Mas countered by arguing that the outcome of a vote would not be legally binding. But the central government didn't agree, saying the attempt to hold the vote as a “disguised referendum”.

At the same time, the conservative government expressed openness for dialogue with Catalonia. “There is still time to correct this course,” he said. “I stand open to all initiatives so long as they move on the foundation of legality.”

Mas had called the central government's challenge in the constitutional court an “enemy” action. He was amazed at the speed with which the court's judges were seated to block the vote. He had previously expressed hope that the court would rule to lift the suspension before November 9 so that the referendum could take place as planned.

Separatist groups in Catalonia have demanded the regional government allow the vote to be held even if blocked by the constitutional court. - Sapa-dpa