December 13, 2009 / 3:22 AM / in 9 years

Catalans vote in "referendum" on independence

MADRID (Reuters) - Organizers of an informal “referendum” on independence from Spain for the rich region of Catalonia hope for a big turnout on Sunday to help push their separatist campaign onto the mainstream political agenda.

FC Barcelona's President Joan Laporta speaks as he shows his support for a campaign to promote the independence vote next December 13, in Vic city centre December 11, 2009. REUTERS/Albert Gea

More than 700,000 people in 170 towns and villages across Catalonia will be allowed to participate in the “referendum,” which will ask citizens whether Catalonia should become an independent state within the European Union.

Its result will not be legally binding, but its backers calculate that if many people vote it will put pressure on Catalonia’s biggest political parties to call for a real referendum on secession in the future.

With Catalan regional elections coming up by the end of 2010, any surge in separatist sentiment would be a serious problem for Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, just as he needs to dedicate his energies to dragging Spain from recession without unsettling debt markets.

NEXT STOP, BARCELONA

“This will be the beginning of an adventure toward self-determination,” said Uriel Bertran, a leader of the campaign which is backed by smaller pro-independence parties as well as dissidents from Convergencia i Unio (CiU), Catalonia’s largest political group, which is divided over separatism.

Sunday’s vote will move the referendum campaign up a gear following its first foray in September, when more than 2,000 inhabitants of the small town of Arenys de Munt voted on the question, with 96 percent favoring independence.

Opinion polls differ over the level of support for independence in Catalonia, which already enjoys considerable autonomy from Madrid and where about half the population speaks Spanish at home instead of the local language Catalan.

But organizers hope a turnout of about 40 percent on Sunday will generate enough momentum to organize an even bigger vote in Catalonia’s capital Barcelona next year.

If that vote is a success, they calculate, parties such as CiU will be forced to adopt their call for Catalans to be given a say on their status in Spain.

Such a scenario would be a nightmare for Zapatero, especially if Catalan socialists, whose votes he needs in parliament, defect to the referendum cause.

“These independence votes are going nowhere,” was Zapatero’s verdict on Friday.

But many disagree in Catalonia, home to major companies such as Gas Natural and with a cultural identity leading back to the Middle Ages.

“Catalonia is dying and has the right to be a country,” said Joan Laporta, president of Barcelona football cub, at a rally in favor of the referendum on Friday.

Reporting by Jason Webb; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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