Catalan separatists plan show of strength on Barcelona streets

Catalan separatists will seek to put on a show of strength at a mass rally on the region’s national day. (AFP pic)

BARCELONA: Catalan separatists prepared to put on a show of strength and unity at celebrations of Catalonia’s “national day” Tuesday, nearly a year after a failed attempt to break away from Spain.

The annual “Diada” holiday, which commemorates Barcelona’s fall to troops loyal to Spain’s King Philip V in 1714, has since 2012 been used to stage a massive rally calling for secession for the wealthy northeastern region with its own distinct language.

But this year’s event will have particular significance as a test of strength after a referendum last October 1, and the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence on October 27, all came to naught.

Thousands of people strolled through the streets of central Barcelona ahead of the start of the demonstration at 17:14 (1514 GMT) — a nod to the year 1714.

Many wore the Catalonia separatist flag – with its yellow and red stripes, blue triangle and white star – draped around their shoulders or as a scarf.

“We can’t ignore so many people,” said Pol Sola, a biology student as he walked two dogs with separatist flags around their necks.

“This protest demands the right to decide and freedom for the political prisoners,” he added in a reference to Catalan separatist leaders in self-imposed exile or in jail awaiting trial for their roles in the independence push.

Organisers say at least 460,000 people signed up for the rally, which a million people attended last year. Many could still join the march without signing up.

Cannot celebrate anything

Catalan president Quim Torra said the rally marks the start of a “mass mobilisation”. Further protests are planned for the anniversary of last year’s banned referendum, which was marred by clashes between police and voters.

In a televised address on Monday, he said his government was “committed to implementing the republic” Catalans voted for in the referendum.

But Oriol Bartomeus, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said that while the separatists will march to “show they are the most organised political force” they have “no clear message”.

Opposition parties complain separatists have transformed the “Diada” into a holiday that excludes the half of the population of Catalonia that does not favour independence.

“Today, more than half of Catalonia cannot celebrate anything,” said Ines Arrimadas, head of the centre-right, anti-independence Ciudadanos party in Catalonia.

A closely-watched survey by the Catalan government’s Centro d’Estudis d’Opinio in July showed 46.7% of Catalans want an independent state, just ahead of 44.9% who were opposed.

Separatist parties won a slim majority of seats in the Catalan parliament in a December election, even though they captured just 47.5% of the popular vote.

“On a day like today, we Catalans should celebrate our national day and not just a call for independence that is shared by less than half of the population,” Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrel, who is Catalan, said in Strasbourg.

Separatist divisions

There are also growing divisions in separatist ranks – between those wanting to provoke a clash with Madrid and those seeking a more conciliatory approach.

“If a separatist is so naive or stupid to believe he can impose independence on the 50% of Catalans who are not (separatists), it’s clear that they are mistaken,” Joan Tarda, a lawmaker for separatist party ERC in the Spanish parliament, said last week.

The ERC has a taken softer approach than its ally in the regional government – former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia.

Puigdemont was sacked by Madrid after last year’s independence declaration and fled to Belgium.

Spain’s conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy imposed direct rule on Catalonia after last year’s unauthorised plebiscite and called early elections.

Rajoy’s successor, socialist Pedro Sanchez, was catapulted to power in June with the support of separatist parties.

Sanchez has offered the region a referendum on greater autonomy, but this was rejected by Torra who insists Madrid must allow a legally binding independence referendum for Catalonia’s 7.5 million people.