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MADRID (Reuters) - A movement to outlaw bullfighting has become entwined in Spain's combustible regional politics, with Madrid calling for the traditional spectacle to be declared cultural heritage just as Catalonia debates a ban.
A debate in the Catalan parliament to put a stop to what Spaniards call the "corrida" has been seen by some Spanish nationalists as a provocation from a region where many want independence from Spain.
It also provided an opportunity for one of Spain's most prominent conservative politicians, the ambitious premiere of Madrid's regional government Esperanza Aguirre, to portray herself as a champion of tradition.
"Bullfighting was a source of inspiration for Goya, Picasso, Garcia Lorca, Hemingway and Orson Welles," said Aguirre, who political commentators say harbors ambitions to lead the main opposition Popular Party, as she posed with a pink matador's cape.
"It's an art that has been in our culture for as long as we can remember," she said, calling on UNESCO to declare bullfighting part of the world's cultural heritage.
The Catalan debate began after a petition by animal rights activists, and has already provoked passionate argument. Speaking in the Catalan parliament, philosopher Jesus Mosterin compared bullfights to "the primitive and abominable custom" of female circumcision.
With Catalan regional elections due in the autumn, the issue has been picked up by some politicians who favor independence from Spain, and Aguirre has taken advantage of the debate to try to align bullfighting with Spanish unity.
"Esperanza Aguirre takes any opportunity she can to jump on the populist bandwagon and wave the Spanish flag. These gestures play very well with PP voters," said Justin Burn, a historian at New York University in Madrid.
Bullfighting has been losing popularity for some years in Barcelona and the northeastern region of Catalonia, which already enjoys considerable autonomy and strongly promotes its own culture and language.
The corrida still retains a big following in other parts of Spain, and big festivals each year in Sevilla, Madrid and Pamplona are packed.
But, while leading matadors are treated as celebrities and major newspapers carry pages devoted to the day's events, bullfighting's popularity is now dwarfed by that of other activities such as soccer.