Defiant Catalonia holds symbolic independence vote
One of Spain's biggest and richest regions, Catalonia will defy Madrid on Sunday when it holds a symbolic vote on whether it should break away as an independent state.
Despite the fierce opposition from Madrid, Catalan leaders have stuck by their vote plan in a constitutional standoff unprecedented in post-Franco Spain.
Vowing to defend the unity of the country as it recovers from an economic crisis, Madrid has mounted a series of constitutional appeals to try to block the vote.
But Catalans have pushed ahead defiantly, fired up by the independence referendum held in Scotland in September, even though Scots voted not to break away from Britain.
Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says his country cannot hold an independence referendum like Scotland because, unlike Britain, it has a written constitution that forbids it.
Proud of its distinct language and culture, Catalonia, a region of 7.
5 million people, accounts for nearly a fifth of Spain's economy.
Demands for greater autonomy there have been rumbling for years, but the latest bid by the region's president Artur Mas has pushed the issue further than ever before.
Catalonia took a step towards greater autonomy in 2006 when it formally adopted a charter that assigned it the status of a "nation".
But in 2010 the Constitutional Court overruled that nationhood claim, fuelling pro-independence passions.
Spain's recent economic crisis has increased unemployment and hardship in the region and swelled its debts, but in 2012 Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected Mas's request for greater powers for Catalonia to tax and spend.
In response, Mas vowed to hold an official yet non-binding vote on independence, but the Spanish government's legal challenges forced him to water that down.
Sunday's polls will be staffed by volunteers.
There is no official electoral roll but the regional government says 5.
4 million Catalans and resident foreigners aged 16 and over are eligible to vote.
The ballot papers will put two questions to voters: "Do you want Catalonia to be a state?" and if so, "Do you want that state to be independent?"- 'Defending the people' -Over the recent weeks of legal wrangling between Madrid and Barcelona, the tone in the dispute has sharpened.
Catalans have banged pots and pans on their terraces over the past few evenings in protest at Madrid's intransigence.
Mas has dubbed Madrid "the adversary" and urged Catalans "not to be afraid" and to vote "in legitimate defence of a whole people".
On Friday Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria issued a veiled warning to Mas, advising "reflection" and cautioning against considering oneself "above the law".
But in the last tense few days before the vote, signs also emerged that the two sides were seeking to sidestep a confrontation.
A source in Mas's government said it would to leave the running of the vote to some 41,000 volunteers who have signed up for the job.
Spain's Justice Minister Rafael Catala on Thursday said that as long as the Catalan government takes a back seat, "no one will prevent citizens from exercising their freedom of expression".
Saenz declined to say what action Madrid might take if Mas's government defied the court's rulings by taking part in organising the vote, but she cautioned Mas against letting ordinary citizens "take responsibility for this process".
Critics say Sunday's symbolic vote is meaningless since those who take part will be overwhelmingly in favour of independence.
But a big turnout would strengthen the hand of Mas, 58, in trying to get Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to negotiate with him.
The regional government says results are expected on Monday.
Mas has said he will later write to Rajoy to ask for fresh talks on a possible fiscal pact -- or even an authorised referendum.
© 2014 AFP