Giant Catalan rally due before contested independence vote

 10 Sep 2017 - 17:36

Giant Catalan rally due before contested independence vote
(FILES) This file photo taken on September 11, 2016 shows people waving 'Esteladas' (pro-independence Catalan flags) as they gather during a pro-independence demonstration, in Barcelona during the National Day of Catalonia 'Diada'. AFP / PAU BARRENA

AFP

Barcelona: Pro-independence protesters are due to come out in force in the streets of Barcelona on Monday for Catalonia's national day, three weeks ahead of a controversial secession referendum banned by Spain.

The "Diada" holiday, which commemorates the fall of Barcelona to Spain in 1714, has been used by separatists in recent years to press for an independent state.

They hope this will be the last one before the wealthy northeastern region breaks away from Spain.

If the "Yes" side wins the October 1 referendum, Catalonia's pro-separatist government has vowed to declare independence within 48 hours and set about building a sovereign state.

"From now, we're counting the days for the referendum," one of the organisers of the demonstration, a civic association named the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), wrote on its website.

It said nearly 400,000 people had signed up for the march and some 1,800 buses had been chartered to take demonstrators to Barcelona from other parts of the region.

The pro-separatist camp is keen to show it can still rally its troops after participation in the Diada declined last year.

This year the demonstrators will take the shape of an over one-kilometre-long "X" by gathering on the Paseo de Gracia and Aragon avenues in central Barcelona meant to represent the mark Catalans will make on their ballots for independence.

Spain's central government says the referendum contravenes the constitution and has turned to the courts to prevent it.

"There will not be a referendum," Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told officials from his conservative Party Popular on Saturday.

"It's my duty to preserve national unity," the premier said, adding that the laws passed by the regional government paving the way towards a referendum were "illegal and anti-democratic."

'Will overwhelm them' 

The pro-separatist camp wants to make this "Diada" their first show of force in the streets before the referendum, whose campaign officially begins on Friday.

Since 2012, the annual "Diada" demonstration has attracted between half a million and 1.8 million people.

In 2013 demonstrators formed a human chain that crossed Catalonia. The following year the "Diada" demonstration took the shape of a giant "V" for "vote" down two of the main avenues of Barcelona. In 2015 the march resembled a human arrow.

"On Monday we will overwhelm them peacefully and democratically, as always, and on October 1 we will overwhelm them at the ballot box," Catalan president Carles Puigdemont said Saturday.

Police have searched Catalan printing houses suspected of making ballots for the referendum while Spain's state prosecutor has launched criminal proceedings against Puigdemont and other top Catalan officials.

ANC vice president Natalia Esteve has threatened to call fresh street protests depending on what action Madrid takes to block the vote.

"When we must call people to hit the streets, we will do it," she said.

With its own language and customs, Catalonia accounts for about one-fifth of Spain's economic output, and already has significant powers over matters such as education and healthcare.

But Spain's economic worries, coupled with a perception that the region's 7.5 million people pay more in taxes to Madrid than they get in return, have helped push the independence question to centre stage.