MADRID—Spain lifted direct rule in Catalonia on Saturday after regional government leaders were sworn in, concluding an unprecedented attempt by Madrid to contain a separatist push that threatened to splinter the country.

Thirteen members of Catalonia’s regional government were sworn in during a ceremony in Barcelona, the capital of Spain’s Catalan region. Regional leader Joaquim “Quim” Torra, a hard-line separatist who was appointed in May, noted in a speech that while direct rule had ended, he and his government were “without euphoria.”

Some former separatists leaders are in jail pending a rebellion trial and “we are a long way from where would like to be,” he said.

The swearing in of Mr. Torra’s government automatically brings an end to seven months of direct rule, according to a statute approved by Spanish lawmakers that established the framework for the measure.

Madrid vetoed Mr. Torra’s previous government appointees last month because two of them were in jail amid the rebellion investigation and two others are sought by Spanish authorities after they fled to Brussels. The officials who were sworn in on Saturday don’t face pending legal cases for their role in last autumn’s unauthorized independence referendum and subsequent declaration of secession.

The end of direct rule coincides with the exit of the architect of Madrid’s temporary control over Catalonia. Mariano Rajoy was ousted Friday by opposition Spanish lawmakers who had seized on a corruption scandal to unseat the conservative prime minister.

Mr. Rajoy’s unexpected removal led to the immediate appointment as prime minister of Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez, who had proposed the no-confidence vote. Mr. Sánchez was sworn in earlier Saturday in Madrid.

Pedro Sánchez is sworn in as Spanish prime minister on Saturday at the Palacio de la Zarzuela in Madrid. Photo: Jack Abuin/Zuma Press

During a parliamentary debate this week, Mr. Sánchez struck a more conciliatory tone toward Catalonia’s separatists than his predecessor, calling for better dialogue and referring to Spain as a country of nations, including Catalonia.

While that rhetoric is a welcome change for separatists accustomed to Mr. Rajoy’s hard-line stance, Mr. Sánchez is unlikely to offer pro-independence Catalans any kind of major political concessions.

Mr. Torra called for dialogue with Mr. Sánchez.

“We have to sit down at the same table and negotiate,” Mr. Torra said Saturday during his speech.

A softer tone from Madrid coupled with the end of direct rule could somewhat ease tensions between the central government and Catalan officials. Separatists parties in the region are beset by deep political divisions but they have been united in their indignation about direct rule, which many pro-independence Catalans consider an affront to Catalonia’s significant and prized autonomy.

Mr. Rajoy invoked sweeping, never-before-used constitutional powers to impose direct rule on Catalonia in October, seeking to quell a secessionist drive that appeared dead set on independence no matter what Madrid said.

Voters and lawmakers who wanted to see the independence drive stopped welcomed direct rule; some even saw it as a kind of panacea for Spain’s greatest political crisis in decades. But for pro-independence Catalans, Article 155, as the statute is called, came to symbolize the Spanish state’s overreach.

In the end, direct rule changed little in the day-to-day lives of most of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents. Madrid controlled Catalonia’s police force and its regional government agencies, for instance, to ensure civil servants focused on official tasks and didn’t abet the separatist push.

Madrid also controlled Catalonia’s budget to prevent the spending of public funds on trying to split with Spain. Madrid already held Catalonia’s purse strings before direct rule was imposed because of earlier attempts to foment secession. It has said it will keep the controls in place to prevent Barcelona from dedicating funds toward any further secession attempts.

Write to Jeannette Neumann at

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