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3 weeks ahead of Spain referendum, huge rally gathers for Catalan independence

14 September 2017

Spain's prime minister is urging the people of Catalonia to refrain from taking part in a planned referendum on the region's independence that he says is unconstitutional. Spanish Attorney General José Manuel Maza sent a directive to Catalan prosecutor's offices ordering the more than 700 mayors belonging to the Association of Municipalities for Independence who support the referendum to be declared "under investigation, assisted by attorneys".

Spain's state prosecutor on Wednesday ordered a criminal probe of Catalan mayors who cooperate with an October 1 independence referendum deemed illegal by Madrid and threatened to arrest those who do not comply.

So far, 712 of a total 948 municipal leaders have said they would allow public spaces to be used for the referendum, although the mayor of the region's most populous area - the city of Barcelona - has yet to take a definitive position.

The referendum, which was approved in the separatist-dominated regional parliament, has been suspended by Spain's constitutional court but Catalan leaders have vowed to hold it regardless.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is fighting to stop the ballot and he appealed to Catalans to ignore calls from independence supporters to turn out. It argues Spain's 1978 constitution stipulates that regional governments can not call an independence referendum.

"What is happening is that people are looking to have more control over their lives; they are looking for much more in terms of a say in how their lives are run", he said.

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Spain's King Felipe VI also entered the fray, stepping up the pressure on Catalonia by vowing that the Spanish Constitution "will prevail" over any attempt to break the country apart.

"If anyone urges you to go to a polling station, don't go, because the referendum can't take place, it would be an absolutely illegal act", the prime minister said.

Catalonia, which is roughly the size of Belgium and accounts for about one-fifth of Spain's economic output, and already has significant powers over matters such as education and healthcare.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of Catalans marked their national holiday by supporting the right to vote and become independent.

But Spain's economic problems, coupled with a perception that the wealthy northeastern region's 7.5 million people pay more in taxes to Madrid than they get in return, have pushed the independence question to the centre stage.

3 weeks ahead of Spain referendum, huge rally gathers for Catalan independence