BARCELONA (Reuters) - Catalans are expected to turn out in droves on Sunday to make their strongest show of force to date for breaking away from the rest of Spain in a symbolic independence referendum.
But the chances of a formal vote on Catalan autonomy remain slim - partly because regional authorities are themselves divided over how far to go.
Secessionist-minded politicians helped by cultural organizations and thousands of volunteers organized the informal vote after Spain’s High Court issued an injunction preventing a formal but non-binding referendum.
It is not yet clear if the ballot boxes will be installed in official buildings such as town halls or schools or if they will simply be put in the streets.
Opinion polls show that as many as 80 percent of the 7.5 million people in the northeast region back more autonomy from Spain, with about 50 percent in favor of full independence.
“We hope that Spain will reconsider its position and realize that things can’t stay as they are for long. They will have to give in at some point,” said Joan Parra, a pensioner from Barcelona who favors independence.
The autonomous community of Catalonia accounts for one fifth of Spain’s economic output and its long-standing desire for independence has been fueled by the country’s deep recession of the past few years.
It also took heart from the Scottish independence campaign, although that was eventually crushed in a referendum in September.
But while most Catalans feel they have been unfairly penalized by cuts in national public spending on welfare and other services when the region’s taxes contribute a disproportionate amount to the country’s income, many of them also oppose breaking away from Spain.
“There is only one Spain,” said Jose Jimenez, a Barcelona hospital employee. “They’re trying to push separatism but at the end of the day it is the Spanish government that rules in our country. So I don’t see this vote as a right move.”
Officials from Catalonia’s two main political parties say that a strong turnout of more than 1.5 million people would both add pressure on Catalonia president Artur Mas to call early regional elections and send a strong signal to Madrid that Catalonia means business.
They hope the vote will prompt Spain’s central government to sit down with them and negotiate more tax and political autonomy for the region, or even convince Madrid to accept a full-blown independence referendum in the future.
The center-right Convergencia i Union and the left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya have used Spain’s wider economic woes and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s fierce opposition to holding any referendum to press their independence agenda.
But once the symbolic vote is over on Sunday, it is unclear whether the two parties will stand united against the Madrid government.
Undermining their thus-far united stance are upcoming regional elections, which both parties have said they will try to use as a proxy to vote on secession by running with a joint electoral platform.
“This will be difficult, especially given that polls have recently confirmed that the secessionist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) would win a snap poll,” said Teneo Intelligence analyst Antonio Barroso.
“In any case, the resulting regional parliament would be highly fragmented, which would prevent ERC from imposing its agenda, thereby reducing the risk of a unilateral declaration of independence.”
Mas, who heads the CiU party, said on Wednesday that he would ask Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy next week to restart dialogue on a series of economic measures. But ERC leader Oriol Junqueras believes no talks with the central government should take place until Catalonia becomes an independent state.
Even within Mas’ CiU party, there are divisions over whether Catalonia should claim full independence or simply discuss better terms for the region within the Spanish state.
Among the measures that Mas and Rajoy could discuss are an increase in central government spending in the region as well as greater powers for the autonomous community to raise taxes.
Rajoy has even said he would put constitutional reform on the table. Such a move, which would turn Spain into a more a federal state, might better accommodate Catalonia’s long-term national feelings without agreeing to secession.
On Sunday, the vote is likely to take place peacefully.
Carme Forcadell, the president of the Catalan National Assembly, one of the organizations that are organizing the vote, said the voting process in unstoppable.
“I don’t think they will prevent us from voting, either in the streets or in schools. They can’t prevent us from getting altogether at the same time in schools to vote. What would they do ?”
The Spanish state insists it will closely monitor any infringement of the law. But government sources say it is unlikely the regional police, which is controlled by the Catalan government, will stand in the way of people casting their ballots.
Addtional reporting and writing by Julien Toyer; Editing by Alessandra Galloni and Angus MacSwan