MADRID (Reuters) - The Catalan parliament took the first step on Friday toward what would be the first ban on bullfighting in a region of Spain, calling for an end to the traditional spectacle by 67 to 59 in an initial vote.
The initiative to ban bullfighting, to which many Spaniards are passionately devoted but which animal rights activists consider cruel, will now go to a final vote in March or April.
The debate and first vote were triggered under Catalan law by a petition organized by Prou! (Catalan for "Enough") which collected more than 180,000 signatures calling for a bill to ban bullfighting.
The spectacle has been losing popularity for some years in Barcelona and the northeastern region of Catalonia. A top bullfighter like Jose Tomas can still pack the bullring with 19,000 spectators, but crowds generally have been dwindling.
The corrida remains popular in other parts of Spain, and big festivals each year in Sevilla, Madrid and Pamplona are packed. Leading matadors are treated as national celebrities and major newspapers carry pages devoted to the day's events.
"The parliament has recognized that this is a subject that society is concerned about. Now for the hardest part, winning the legal battle," said Prou! in a note published on its website www.prou.cat/.
The biggest parties in the Catalan parliament, the governing Socialists and the center-right CiU, both gave their members free votes on the controversial issue, which could lead to the closure of Barcelona's single active bullring.
Prou! has already said that if successful in Catalonia, it will take its campaign to end bullfighting to other regions in Spain where it is not so popular. (Reporting by Raquel Castillo, writing by Nigel Davies, editing by Tim Pearce)