Catalans rally for independence from Spain
Hundreds of thousands of Catalans were set to pour into the streets Friday demanding independence, ahead of a regional election billed as an indirect vote on breaking away from Spain.
Red and yellow Catalan flags flew in towns across the northeastern region as demonstrators set out for Barcelona to march under the slogan "Let's start building a new country."
The show of force on Catalan national day comes at a time of high political tensions in a country recovering from a deep recession.
Polls this week showed pro-secession candidates could win a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament in ballots on September 27, even though they may fail to win the most votes.
If they win parliament, Catalan president Artur Mas has vowed to push through an 18-month roadmap to secession for the region of 7.5 million people, which accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy.
"In your hands is the strength and the tool to mark the political future of this nation: the vote," said Mas, a conservative who is campaigning in an alliance with left-wing nationalists.
"Once the people have spoken through their vote, we will all take on board what the majority decides."
Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy fiercely opposes independence and a plebiscite, saying all Spaniards reserve the right to vote on issues of sovereignty.
Leaders of EU powers such as Britain and Germany have supported Rajoy in his stance against the independence drive, the biggest political challenge to his governing Popular Party (PP) ahead of a general election in December.
- Following Scotland, Canada -
Mas is casting this month's election as a de facto vote on independence, like ones in Scotland last year and in Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec in 1980 and 1995. Those votes all resulted in a "no" to secession.
"We would have preferred a referendum like in Quebec and Scotland, but the only course left to us was to organise these elections," Mas told a gathering of foreign media on Friday.
Polls show a majority of Catalans are in favour of a referendum even if they are almost evenly divided on independence.
Catalan nationalism has intensified in Spain's economic downturn. Separatists say Catalonia pays an unfair level of taxes to Madrid compared to the funding it receives.
On Catalan's national day a year ago, hundreds of thousands of flag-waving separatists rallied in Barcelona. In 2013 they formed a 400-kilometre (250-mile) human chain across the region.
Nearly 500,000 people have signed up to take part in Friday's rally which is set to fill a major road into the north of Barcelona.
Hundreds of bikers gathered in the foggy central square of Vic, a town some 70 kilometres (40 miles) of Barcelona, on Friday morning to ride to the event.
"Achieving independence will not be easy but winning the election will be an important first step," said one of the bikers, Eusebio Rius, a retired 65-year-old with a white moustache.
Opponents of Catalan independence are more divided.
New far-left anti-austerity party Podemos favours a referendum.
The main opposition Socialists promise a constitutional federal reform which would grant Catalonia more powers.
Rajoy refuses to negotiate on independence and has not publicly discussed possible constitutional reforms.
Many Catalans insist that the separatists do not speak for them.
"I am fed up of this business," said Joan Madorell, a 51-year-old architect, drinking coffee on the terrace of a cafe in Barcelona.
"It is a scandal that the PP and Socialists do not let us hold a referendum that 80 percent of Catalans want. But it is also scandalous that the pro-independence list say they will have won even if they do not win a majority of votes."
© 2015 AFP