Catalans vote in symbolic independence referendum
People in Catalonia voted in symbolic referendums on Sunday that organisers hope will be a step towards eventual independence from Spain for the wealthy northeastern region.Some 700,000 Catalan residents in 166 towns and villages, or almost 10 per cent of the region's population, were called on to answer the question: "Do you agree that Catalonia become a social, democratic and independent state, and member of the European Union?"
The polls, of members of local associations and supported by some political parties and unions, are non-binding as Spain's constitution only allows referendums if they are mandated by the central government.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said in Brussels on Friday that the referendums "are not going anywhere."
But organisers hope that a result in favour of independence, and with a turnout of at least 40 per cent, will push the issue up the political agenda throughout Spain.
"The turnout has been good," Uriel Bertran, the spokesman for the organisers, said at around midday.
"Tomorrow Catalonia will awake as if it is another country, with new hope."
A sizeable minority in Catalonia would already like to see the region, which accounts for 25 per cent of Spain's gross domestic product and which has its own Catalan language, achieve independence from Spain.
"Catalonia is dying, they are killing it and we must react," Joan Laporta, the chairman of Barcelona Football Club, told the newspaper El Pais on Sunday.
"No Catalan can accept the fiscal pillaging that we are suffering nor the attacks on the rights and freedoms of Catalonia."
In a precursor to Sunday's vote, 96 per cent of residents in the small town of Arenys de Munt voted in September in favour of Catalan independence. Turnout was 41 per cent.
On Saturday, Sant Jaume de Frontanya, the smallest village in Catalonia, held an early referendum, with 18 of its 21 registered voters backing independence.
Further referendums are already planned in other parts of the region, including the capital of Barcelona, and the cities of Girona and Lleida, early next year.
Sunday's vote also comes as Spain's Constitutional Court prepares to rule on the legality of the region's statute of autonomy, with fears that a negative decision could fuel separatist sentiment.
The statute, approved by the Spanish parliament and endorsed by Catalan voters in a 2006 referendum, gave the regional parliament enhanced powers in taxation and judicial matters as well as more control over airports, ports and immigration.
Catalonia, like other Spanish regions, already controlled most aspects of government, including health and education.
Most controversially, the statute describes the region as a "nation" within Spain.
The conservative opposition Popular Party called on the Constitutional Court to review the document.
A rejection of the statute "would be an unacceptable humiliation for Catalans," said Laporta.
Teams of international observers from regions of the world with independence or secessionist movements are attending Sunday's vote.
They include a representative of the Scottish National Party, Christopher White, a member of Ireland's Catholic republican Sinn Fein party, Joe Reilly, and others from Italy's South Tyrol region, the French island of Corsica, Belgium's Flemish region and from the province of Quebec in Canada.
Also observing the vote are political representatives from Spain's Galicia and Basque regions, which both have independence movements.