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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Catalonia crisis: Hundreds of thousands march in Barcelona against independence 

During the good-natured gathering, many demonstrators carried Spanish flags and the red and yellow striped "Senyera" flag of the region — minus the white star against a blue triangular background which has become the symbol of pro-independence

Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona on October 29, 2017. Jon Nazca / Reuters
Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona on October 29, 2017. Jon Nazca / Reuters

Hundreds of thousands of anti-independence Catalans took to the streets of the semi-autonomous region’s capital, Barcelona, on Sunday to express their support for the national government of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy.

During the good-natured gathering, many demonstrators carried Spanish flags and the red and yellow striped "Senyera" flag of the region — minus the white star against a blue triangular background which has become the symbol of pro-independence.

It comes amid political turmoil sparked by last month's independence referendum staged by Catalonia. Early on Saturday, Madrid sacked Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and took control of the region following the Catalan parliament's declaration of independence the day before.

Crowds began to gather along Barcelona’s central boulevards early on Sunday, the atmosphere festive and celebratory. Demonstrators cheered at the sight of pro-unionist local politicians and members of the central government.

There was support shown too for regional elections called by Mr Rajoy for December 21 during which a new government for Catalonia will be chosen.

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“Now yes, we are going to vote!” marchers chanted, while the appearance of helicopters belonging to the national police force elicited applause and shouts of “This is our police!”.

Some protesters also took up the chant “Puigdemont to jail!”. The same chant had echoed around the streets of Madrid on Saturday when another large pro-unionist march had taken place, attracting some far-right elements.

Alex Ramos, leader of the pro-union Societat Civil Catalana group, told protesters on Sunday: “We have organised ourselves late, but we are here to show that there is a majority of Catalans that are no longer silent and that no longer want to be silenced.”

Another leader from one of the local parties that opposes independence, Ines Arrimadas of the Citizens party, told marchers that “today the silent majority of Catalans are once again taking to the street to show that the majority of Catalans feel Catalan, Spanish and European”.

Mr Arrimadas said Catalans who wanted to remain in Spain should vote for pro-union parties on December 21. “We will go out to win [the elections] and give Catalans the chance to recover our future.”

An opinion poll published on Sunday, which was conducted before the declaration of independence on Friday, showed that parties favouring Catalan independence would be likely to lose their majority in the regional parliament in the December vote.

Pro-independence parties would win 42.5 per cent of the vote while anti-independence parties would win 43.4 per cent, according to the poll of 1,000 people which was carried out by polling organisation Sigma Dos on behalf of the anti-independence newspaper El Mundo.

Monday could see a new flashpoint in the two-month-long crisis when Mr Puigdemont has suggested he will return to work at the headquarters of the regional government in Barcelona — despite having been sacked by Madrid.

Some national government figures have claimed this could lead to his arrest on charges of sedition and rebellion, while supporters of Mr Puigdemont have vowed to protect him by forming human chains around buildings where the former Catalan president and his colleagues have their offices.

A less confrontational tone was struck by a central government spokesman in Madrid, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, who said Mr Puigdemont had the right to continue in politics, despite his removal from office.

“I’m quite sure that if [he] takes part in these elections, he can exercise this democratic opposition,” he said, according to Reuters.

“The Catalans will be able to say what they feel about what they've been seeing in this last year, with all sorts of failing the law, abusing the law and putting themselves outside the law."