Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy was expected in the Catalan capital of Barcelona on Friday, a day after pro-independence leaders launched their campaign for a referendum outlawed by Madrid.
Rajoy will meet members of his conservative Popular Party in the evening as tensions mount over Catalan plans to hold the banned vote on October 1 in a region sharply divided over whether they want independence or not.
In front of a crowd of 8,000 fervent supporters in Tarragona on Thursday evening, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and other separatist leaders announced the official start of the campaign.
“Vote, and in so doing bring light to darkness that has lasted for too many years,” Puigdemont told the crowd inside a former bullring to shouts of “Independence,” “We will vote” and “We’re not afraid!”
Organisers broadcast a campaign video that depicted the future of an independent Catalonia, free from “injustice”, “threats” and embracing “freedom”.
– Big cities key –
The event topped weeks of mounting tensions as Catalan leaders go ahead with referendum preparations despite Madrid’s ban and a court ruling that deems it illegal.
In Tarragona, on Thursday, a city where separatists are in the minority several critics mingled with hundreds of independence supporters who were unable to get in.
“This isn’t a government for all Catalans,” complained Josep Enric Sabate, a 44-year-old real estate entrepreneur.
“This isn’t for real, only supporters of independence will go vote, they will win and who knows what will happen after.”
A poll in July commissioned by the regional government found that 49.4 percent of Catalans were against independence while 41.1 percent supported it. More than 70 percent, though, wanted a referendum to settle the matter.
If they win, the separatists vow to declare independence within days for the wealthy northeastern region of Spain, home to around 7.5 million people.
More than 700 mayors have pledged to hold the referendum, but they head up mostly small municipalities.
Among the most populated cities, many will not get involved, and question marks remain over the biggest of them all Barcelona.
Mayor Ada Colau said on Thursday that people in Barcelona will be able to vote “without putting institutions or public workers at risk,” but she gave no details as to how this would work.
The city council, meanwhile, remains divided over the issue.
Parties that oppose independence will not take part in the campaign for the vote and have asked their supporters to boycott it.
Carles Ruiz, the Socialist mayor of Viladecans, a town of 65,000 residents, denounced “pressure” on those mayors who refuse to participate in the referendum on social media or in person.
“Some post photos of the mayors or of their homes,” he told AFP.
– ‘Right to vote’ –
Catalonia, which accounts for about one-fifth of Spain’s economic output, already has significant powers over matters such as education and healthcare.
But Spain’s economic worries, coupled with a perception that Catalonia pays more in taxes than it receives in investments and transfers from Madrid, have helped push the cause of secession.
The pro-separatist camp argues that a referendum represents their right to self-determination.
“What we are doing is exercising the right to vote… that forms part of a basic democratic exercise,” Catalan Vice-President Oriol Junqueras told Spanish radio on Friday.
They have also criticised what they see as heavy-handed measures by Madrid to stop the vote.
Spain’s public prosecutor has ordered a criminal probe into more than 700 Catalan mayors who have so far agreed to help stage the referendum and threatened to arrest them if they do not turn up for questioning in court.
Prosecutors have also ordered police to seize ballot boxes, election flyers and any other item that could be used in the referendum and launched an official complaint against Puigdemont and other top Catalan officials over their referendum plans.
But this only appears to strengthen the resolve of pro-independence Catalans.
Junqueras told Thursday’s gathering that more than 47,000 volunteers were willing to help out with the vote.
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