Catalonia decides whether to secede from Spain

Barcelona fans wave pro-independence flags at a match at the Camp Nou stadium yesterday. Picture: AFP/Getty

Barcelona fans wave pro-independence flags at a match at the Camp Nou stadium yesterday. Picture: AFP/Getty

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CATALONIA’S pro-independence leaders have wrapped up their campaign ahead of an election today which has been styled as a vote on secession, vowing that the dream of a Catalan nation has arrived.

Draped in esteladas, the red, gold and blue Catalan independence flag, supporters pumped their fists as they chanted “Independence!” and “Never again subjects!”

Oriol Junqueras, head of the pro-independence party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, told how he had promised his grandfather the Catalans would one day achieve independence. “That day has come,” he said.

It was an emotional end to a campaign that has seen increasingly impassioned rhetoric and the revival of historical resentments as the prospect of a breakaway bid by Spain’s economic powerhouse inches closer to reality.

“On Sunday, compatriots, we will write the future,” the Catalan regional president, Artur Mas, proclaimed to a vast crowd gathered in front of Barcelona’s Montjuic castle.

The government of Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, insists the vote is no more than a normal regional election. But Mas, so far thwarted in his attempts to hold a recognised independence referendum, has painted it as a de facto plebiscite on the issue. A majority for the pro-independence coalition Junts Pel Si (Together For Yes) will spark an 18-month process towards secession and then, if the central government refuses to negotiate, a unilateral declaration of independence. Madrid says that would be unconstitutional, and has issued warnings of exclusion from the EU and economic collapse.

The pro-independence coalition did not have the monopoly on emotion last night. Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, leader of Rajoy’s Popular Party in Catalonia, said the vote was “the most important election in the history of Catalonia. At stake is the future of our children and grandchildren.”

In Madrid too, Rajoy issued an appeal to Catalans, finally appearing unnerved over the vote after months of dismissing its legitimacy. “There is a majority of Catalans that love their people and that love their land, and because they love it they do not want to see it amputated from Spain and from Europe,” he said.

The government even used a campaign video released on Friday to speak to Catalans directly in their regional language. “I love Catalonia and I love the Catalans,” said Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the deputy prime minister. But for those gathered in front of Montjuic Castle – a site heavy with symbolism as the place where the forces of Francisco Franco executed the Catalan president, Lluis Companys, after the Spanish Civil War –such entreaties seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.

Rafa Muñoz, a 46-year-old translator from Barcelona, said the vote was about improving life for the Catalans economically, socially, and in terms of justice, language and culture. “I speak Catalan, and shamefully it’s not even known in the rest of the world. Because Spain always gives the image of Spain they want to give, they don’t want to give an image of several peoples, only one, the Castilian. This is something we have been waiting for for a long time,” he said.

In Madrid, many spoke of concern that the issue had become so emotive.

Consuelo, an executive for a multinational which has major business interests in Catalonia, was of the view that the campaign was being treated somewhat frivolously.

“They are talking about these elections being a referendum on independence, but what is the nature of the plan for independence? It’s not at all clear how it would work. It seems to be more a case of appealing to people’s emotions, their identity.”

But, she suggested, Rajoy should allow the region its voice – echoing complaints by many in Catalonia that by stifling demands for greater autonomy, the central government has forced the independence movement’s hand.

Secession could affect her company, she said, “but that doesn’t mean Catalans shouldn’t be able to decide what they want.”

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