MADRID (Reuters) - Catalonia could become the first mainland Spanish region to ban bullfighting in a local parliamentary vote this Wednesday that has pitted animal rights activists against fans of the centuries-old national symbol.
The bill went to Parliament after 180,000 Catalans signed a petition circulated by anti-bullfighting group Prou! (Enough, in English), which argues bullfights are cruelty to animals.
In December the parliament voted 67 for and 59 against to take the citizens' petition under consideration, and the final vote on Wednesday is expected to echo that outcome as lawmakers of all stripes, from Socialists to conservatives from the nationalist CiU party, support the ban.
"We understand it's a tradition but now is the time to rethink such a bloody act. There are other traditions we can hang on to," Silvia Barquero, spokeswoman for the small anti-bullfighting party, or PACMA.
In the bullring, the torero and his team use capes, lances and darts to master the bull and then eventually kill it with a sword in a highly-ritualized performance.
The bullfight was made illegal in Spain's Canary Islands in 1991.
Under the ban, which would come into effect in 2012, the last active bullring in Catalonia's capital, Barcelona, would shut down as would the remaining few elsewhere in the region.
Opponents say bullfighting involves gratuitous animal suffering that has no place in a modern society.
But supporters say the torero's face-off with the enraged bull celebrates an emotional reality at the heart of the Spanish character, celebrated in art by the likes of painter Pablo Picasso and poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
Those in favor of bullfighting say it creates thousands of jobs and is central to the tourist industry.
In Barcelona, bullfighting crowds have been dwindling for some years, although a top bullfighter such as Jose Tomas can still pack the Monumental bullring with 19,000.
Jose Tomas was due to fight in Barcelona this summer to boost support opposing the campaign but had to cancel after suffering a terrible goring in Mexcio in April.
A ban would be a "terrible loss," he told la Razon newspaper.
"To think they can steal a part of all you admire, that is so important to your life, your profession, it's hard," he said.
Commentators and lawmakers deny that the anti-bullfight movement has to do with separatist moves in Catalonia.
"This is not a debate about identity but about values," said Josep Rull, a CiU deputy who supports the ban.
Catalonians say the two issues are not related.
"There is an obsession with turning everything that happens in Catalonia into a political debate. When the Canary Islands banned bullfighting, no one really cared. It was a people's movement not a political one," said Oriol Camps, 37, a notary from the city of Reus in Catalonia.
But Carlos Nunez, president of the Bull Breeders' Union, said he believed it was entirely political.
"The Catalan politicians are using it as an excuse to create an artificial identity," he was quoted as saying by ABC newspaper.
Although bullfighting does not draw the same crowds that football does in Spain, the corrida remains popular in places such as Seville, Madrid and Pamplona where packed annual festivals take place.
Animal rights groups and anti-bullfighting campaigners cite a 2006 Gallup poll which showed that 72.1 percent of Spaniards were not interested in bullfights, a proportion which rose to 81.7 percent for those aged 15-24.
Prou! has said that if successful in Catalonia, it will take its campaign to end bullfighting to other regions in Spain.