MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Saturday called for renewed dialogue and a "return to sanity" in Catalonia as the region prepares to hold a symbolic vote on independence that is strongly opposed by the central government.
Catalonia will stage an informal referendum on Sunday to try to gauge backing for a breakaway from Spain. Volunteers and campaigners set up polling stations in anticipation of a high turnout from pro-independence supporters.
The staging of the vote has been fiercely criticized by Madrid, though it is not expected to intervene. Regional police are unlikely to stand in the way of voters, government sources said.
"What we need is a return to sanity from next Monday, and let's talk within the realm of the constitution and the law," Rajoy said in a speech to members of his center-right People's Party (PP). He dismissed Sunday's vote, saying it carried no weight and would have no impact.
"It's not a referendum or a consultation or anything that resembles that," Rajoy said.
But the symbolic vote comes as support for a long-standing independence campaign has been swelled by Spain's deep recession. Officials from Catalonia's two main political parties say a strong turnout would send a powerful signal to Madrid that Catalonia means business.
A formal but equally non-binding referendum originally proposed by Catalan leader Artur Mas for Nov. 9 was blocked by Spain's High Court [ID:nL6N0SW221]
While he is not known to have met with Mas since July, Rajoy has made recent overtures about reforms in Catalonia, which has a population of about 7.5 million and accounts for one fifth of Spain's economic output.
He recently said that a new "chapter of dialogue" was open with Catalonia, and the government has also opened the door to reviewing next year the way Spanish regions are financed. [ID:nL6N0SA208]
In a wide-ranging speech to his PP supporters, Rajoy also said he would appear in parliament later this month to announce further measures to combat corruption.
A series of graft scandals in the country, involving politicians of various leanings, bankers and even the sister of the king of Spain, have eroded support for mainstream parties, and helped the rise of newcomer party Podemos ('We Can'). [ID:nL6N0SV3QK]
Alongside the Catalan secession drive, it is adding to headaches for the PP as it heads into an election year in 2015.
Reporting by Sarah White and Carlos Ruano; Editing by Rosalind Russell