Catalonia to launch campaign for banned independence referendum

AFP , Thursday 14 Sep 2017

A banner reading "Independence Now" is carried as thousands of people gather for a rally on Catalonia's national day 'La Diada' in Barcelona, Spain, September 11, 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

Catalan separatists were poised Thursday to launch their campaign for a banned independence referendum in a major high-profile event, despite mounting pressure to stop the vote.

The campaign kickoff will take place at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) at a 10,000 seat capacity bullring in the port of Tarragona, attended by Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and representatives of Catalonia's main separatist parties and associations.

But there were doubts whether the rally would go ahead after organisers of the gathering were "warned it was illegal," said the central government's office in Catalonia.

Asked during a TV interview if an operation was under way to stop the event in Tarragona, Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said: "You can't cooperate and you can't participate in this referendum."

A manager for the company that runs the bullring, who did not want to be named, told AFP they had not received any official request to not let the rally go ahead.

The pro-independence camp has two weeks to fire up its base and win over its critics who are reluctant to take part in the referendum set for October 1.

In July, a poll commissioned by the regional government found that 49.4 percent of Catalans were against independence while 41.1 supported it. More than 70 percent, though, wanted a referendum to settle the matter.

If they win, the separatists vow to declare independence within days for the wealthy northeastern region of Spain, with its capital Barcelona, home to around 7.5 million people.

The Catalan government has not established a minimum participation for the outcome of the referendum to be valid but a high turnout is key for the legitimacy of the vote.

Pro-separatists are a minority in Tarragona, the capital of a province with the same name with a population of around 130,000, and several chemical and oil refineries.

The city's Socialist mayor, Josep Felix Ballesteros, has refused to provide facilities for the referendum.

Parties that oppose secession will not take part in the campaign for the referendum, which was declared illegal by Spain's Constitutional Court, and have asked their supporters to boycott the vote.

Carles Ruiz, the Socialist mayor of Viladecans, a town of 65,000 residents, denounced "pressure" on those mayors who refuse to participate on social media or in person.

"Some post photos of the mayors or of their homes," he told AFP.

Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who will travel to Barcelona on Friday, has also urged Catalans to stay away from the poll.

Spanish state institutions are ratching up the pressure almost daily on Catalan officials to stop the referendum.

Spain's public prosecutor has ordered a criminal probe of the over 700 Catalan mayors who have so far agreed to help stage the referendum and threatened to arrest them if they do not turn up for questioning in court.

But a big question mark remains over Barcelona, Catalonia's biggest city run by Mayor Ada Colau, a left-wing former activist.

On Thursday, she tweeted that people would be allowed to vote "without putting institutions or public workers at risk," without detailing how this would actually happen. A city hall spokesman was unable to give further details.

Prosecutors have also filed legal proceedings against the five members of an electoral board set up by the regional government to oversee the banned vote.

And they have ordered police to seize ballot boxes, election flyers and any other item that could be used in the referendum and launched an official complaint against Puigdemont and other top Catalan officials over their referendum plans.

The pro-separatist camp argues that the attempts by Madrid to stop the referendum may in fact boost support for their cause.

"The attitude of the state is so aggressive that no democrat can remain indifferent," Ramon Pique, the coordinator of the campaign of the Catalan National Assembly, an influential pro-independence citizens group, told AFP.

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