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Catalonia votes on independence from Spain

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Catalonia

Man casts his vote in Catalonia
Many people have already cast an early ballot in the town of Vic

This weekend, 700,000 people in Catalonia are eligible to vote in the region's first ever referendum on independence from Spain.

Organised by activists and volunteers, the vote is not officially binding but it is taking place at a tense time in relations with Madrid.

Supporters hope it is the first step towards a formal ballot for a separate state.

Deep in the nationalist heartland of Catalonia, campaigners have been drumming up support for the vote.

In the medieval town of Vic, hundreds of residents have already cast an early ballot at a tent in a corner of the main square.

Many say the autonomy Catalonia already has is not enough, and they are voting "Yes" to independence.

"More and more people think we have no room in the Spanish house, so we need a house of our own," organiser Alfons Lopez Tema says.

"[The Spanish] don't want us, they don't love us, they don't give us what we want. So the best thing is to vote and decide."

'Subversive'

Almost 170 Catalan towns and villages are holding ballots, staffed by thousands of volunteers.

Flag on street, Catalonia
Some hope the ballot will lead towards a formal independence vote

Vic has traditionally favoured independence but the vote will be a first indication of whether views here are spreading.

The referendum has been the topic of daily debate on local radio.

Speaking Catalan on air was forbidden as subversive during General Franco's dictatorship.

Today, it is an official language, used in schools and government, and Catalonia itself has broad autonomy.

But three years ago, people across Catalonia voted for more. They approved a new statute - the law that sets out the relationship between Catalonia and the Spanish state - which defined this part of eastern Spain as a distinct nation.

It gave more jurisdiction to the local authorities and what many believe is a fairer share of the revenue collected.

For the moderate-minded majority of Catalans, that was enough.

The law was approved in a referendum, passed by the Catalan and Spanish parliaments and signed by the king.

People are disillusioned by what's happened
Vic Radio presenter Joan Turro

But Spain's main opposition party is contesting the statute in the Constitutional Court and many Catalans fear key provisions of the law will soon be overturned.

"People are disillusioned by what's happened. They're fed up. That's why so many are involved in organising this vote," Vic Radio presenter Joan Turro explains during a break in the schedule.

"People here in the interior of Catalonia have always wanted independence. We want this vote to show that it's not just us now."

Many people in Catalonia say they feel different from the rest of Spain, with their own distinct language, culture and history.

Sunday's referendum will test how far that feeling translates into actual support for a separate state.

Economic help

But frustrations about the relationship with Madrid are as much about money as identity.

Home to some 7m people, Catalonia is a prosperous place.

Pigs in Catalonia
Some farmers believe breaking away from Spain will help the local economy

The pretty cobbled streets of medieval Vic are lined with boutiques and alluring delicatessens - industry and agriculture are both strong here.

But many complain that too much of that local wealth is drained away subsidising poorer parts of Spain and the return investment from Madrid is minimal.

A key provision of the new statute adjusted the balance but the improved system has not been implemented yet.

One pig farmer told me he believed breaking away from Spain would help the local economy.

"If you add everything up, we support the rest of Spain and they don't support us," he said, though like many people he struggled to name anything specific Catalonia has missed out on.

National identity

The Catalan government agrees that the balance of payments to Madrid was deeply unjust.

But Finance Minister Antoni Castells says that the new statute does correct that, adding more than 2 billion euros to the local budget this year.

Ballot papers for Catalonia referendum
The Catalan government will be watching to see how high turnout is

He points out that only one in five Catalans usually express support for independence.

Still, he says, the fight over the statute has frustrated many and left "a strong feeling of disappointment".

For the minister, the thing to watch at this weekend's unofficial referendum is the turnout.

"If it's high, that suggests an increased number of people think the relationship between Catalonia and Spain should be reconsidered, that too many things are not going in a good way and that a lot of people think Spain is not respecting our self-government and our national identity," Mr Castells explains.

Catalans are certainly passionate about their identity.

Back in a smoky bar in Vic, most of the young crowd watching a Barcelona football match on TV have draped themselves in yellow and red Catalan flags.

Their songs in Catalan are a mixture of swearing at Spain and their own national anthem. There is a map of Catalonia on the wall, with the rest of Spain blanked out.

Most voters in this town will clearly say "Yes" to independence.

What will be interesting is to see how many more moderate Catalans now share their passion.



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