Million Catalans vote on breakaway

2014-11-09 18:33
Pro independence protester (AP)

Pro independence protester (AP)

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Barcelona - More than a million Catalans turned out on Sunday to vote on independence from Spain in a symbolic ballot, defying challenges from the Spanish government.

Voters of all ages lined up around the block, some applauding, as polling stations opened after weeks of tense legal wrangling with Spanish authorities.

In one of Spain's richest but most indebted regions, a long-standing yearning for independence has swelled over recent years as recession and political corruption scandals have shaken Spain.

The desire to break away has been sharpened by resistance from Madrid.

"This is an opportunity we could not miss.... We have been demanding it for a very long time," said Martin Arbaizar, 16, queueing to vote in a school in Barcelona.

Spain's conservative government challenged the vote in the courts, forcing Catalan leaders to water it down from a non-binding referendum to a symbolic vote organised by volunteers.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has vowed to defend the unity of Spain as it recovers from recession, said the vote "will not have any effect".

But voters were undeterred, fired up by the independence referendum held in Scotland in September, despite most Scots voting "no".

"Even though it may not be official, the important thing is that they listen to us," said Arbaizar. "The more people vote, the more noise we make, the better."

 Ballot boxes vandalised 

Catalonia's vice president Joana Ortega told reporters that 1 142 910 people had voted across the region between 09:00 and 13:00 (12:00 GMT).

Most polls were due to stay open until 19:00 GMT. Voting stations were staffed by about 41 000 volunteers.

Ortega could not give a turnout rate since there was no formal electoral roll, but Catalan authorities said 5.4 million people were eligible to vote overall.

She said voting went on with "absolute normality".

In one of the few incidents reported, police arrested five people for damaging ballot boxes and causing unspecified injuries after bursting into a polling station in the northern district of Girona.

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.

He said after voting that he hoped Sunday's vote was a step towards a full referendum.

'Definitive referendum' wanted 

Ballot boxes were set up at schools and town halls even though the central government warned the regional government that it cannot use public resources for the polls.

Several political groups and lobbies opposed to independence said they had filed lawsuits against the Catalan authorities for organising the vote.

State prosecutors said they were gathering evidence to see whether Catalan authorities breached court injunctions by opening polling stations and mailing campaign material.

"If there are reprisals, that will be unfair," said Jordi, a 56-year-old teacher staffing a polling station in Barcelona who declined to give his last name.

"What are they going to do, put 40 000 volunteers in jail?"

Critics say the polls are skewed since those turning out to vote would be overwhelmingly in favour of independence.

"Call it whatever you like, but it is not a referendum, not a consultation, nor anything like it," Rajoy said on Saturday. "What is certain is that it will not have any effect."

But a strong turnout could strengthen Mas's hand in trying to make the national government negotiate.

"A lot of people are participating in this outstanding event," Mas told international reporters in English after voting in a school in Barcelona.

"We deserve the right to vote in a definitive referendum and this is something that maybe is understood in Madrid, but if it is not understood in Madrid our will is to go on with this process."

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