More than 2m Catalans took part in a symbolic vote on the political future of the northern Spanish region on Sunday, in the biggest show of strength yet for Catalonia’s increasingly vocal independence campaign.
The poll was held in the face of fierce opposition from the Spanish government, in spite of a constitutional court ruling last week to suspend the exercise. According to preliminary results released after midnight by the regional government, more than 80 per cent of participants voted for an independent Catalan state. Anti-independence parties largely boycotted the poll, skewing the results in favour of a break with Spain.
Artur Mas, the Catalan president, hailed the vote as a “total success”. He told journalists after the voting closed. “This shows the strong determination of the Catalan people to decide their own future . . . Catalans have the right to decided their own political future.”
Catalan leaders have long conceded that the vote has no direct legal consequences, but hope that the high turnout will bolster their political case with both Madrid and other European governments. With 88 per cent of the votes counted, the turnout reached 2.04m. Officials estimated that the final result would show that at least 2.25m Catalans took part in the consultation. Catalonia has a population of 7.5m, of whom 5.4m are eligible to vote.
“We have been waiting for this opportunity for many years,” said Pau Domingo, a 22-year old pro-independence voter outside a polling station in central Barcelona. “This is an important step towards taking our destiny in our hands, and towards no longer depending on a state that doesn´t accept us the way we are.”
The Catalan government had initially hoped to hold a more formal referendum, along the lines of the secession vote in Scotland in September. But its ambitions were thwarted repeatedly by Madrid, which argues that the Spanish constitution leaves no room for regional self-determination – let alone for a break-up of the country. That position has been broadly endorsed by both the constitutional court and the main opposition party, Spain’s Socialists.
Despite a series of last-minute legal appeals and a warning from the state prosecution service, the voting process across the region was orderly and peaceful, Catalan officials said. In many cities, voters formed long queues before polling stations opened at 9am, generating what participants described as a “festive atmosphere”.
Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, told a party conference on Saturday that the Catalan vote “is not a referendum, it is not a consultation, or anything like that.” He added: “It will have no effect.”
At polling stations in Barcelona, however, the sentiment was different. “Even though this vote is symbolic, it still means that the people have had their say,” said Anna Quadras, 45, who said she had voted for an independent Catalan state. She added: “The moment has come. We have tried talking to the Spanish government [about greater autonomy] but it was just not possible.
Voters were asked for their response to two questions. The first was: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state?” If answered affirmatively, the ballot paper posed a second question: “Do you want that state to be independent?”
Pro-independence leaders in Barcelona had refused repeatedly to set a target for voter turnout, arguing that last week’s court ruling – and the political pressure from Madrid – could persuade many Catalans to stay at home. At the last regional election in 2012, however, more than 1.7m people voted for Catalan nationalist parties, providing a rough indication of the numbers that the pro-independence camp could rely on. The most recent independence rally in Barcelona was attended by as many as 1.6m people.
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