BFF-70 Catalan separatists rally in Barcelona in show of strength

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SPAIN-CATALONIA-POLITICS

Catalan separatists rally in Barcelona in show of strength

BARCELONA, Sept 11, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – Around one million Catalans rallied
in Barcelona on Tuesday, banging drums and blowing whistles in a show of
support for independence nearly a year after a failed attempt to break away
from Spain.

Wearing coral-red T-shirts and waving the red, yellow and blue Catalan
separatist flag, a sea of protesters gathered for the rally on Catalonia’s
“national day” which commemorates Barcelona’s fall to troops loyal to Spain’s
King Philip V in 1714.

The annual “Diada” holiday has since 2012 been used to stage a massive
rally calling for secession for the wealthy northeastern region with its own
distinct language.

But this year’s event had particular significance as a test of strength
after a referendum last October 1, and the Catalan parliament’s unilateral
declaration of independence on October 27, all came to naught.

Demonstrators climbed on each others shoulders to form human towers, a
Catalan tradition, while others carried yellow and black signs that read
“Free Catalan political prisoners now”, a reference to Catalan separatist
leaders in jail awaiting trial over last year’s independence bid.

“I am outraged…the political prisoners have to be released now!, said
Santi Noe, 54, who came to the rally from his farm in El Maresme near
Barcelona on his green tractor, one of dozens of tractors at the event.

City police said on Twitter that around one million people took part, a
similar amount to last year’s protest.

Organisers said they had sold over 200,000 coral-red T-shirts — the colour
used in the ties used to secure the ballot boxes during last year’s contested
referendum.

At the start of the rally demonstrators knocked down a symbolic wall
decorated with separatist symbols, a metaphor for the power of the people to
overcome obstacles and achieve independence.

– ‘No plan’ –

Catalan president Quim Torra said the rally marks the start of a “mass
mobilisation”. Further protests are planned for an anniversary of last year’s
banned referendum, which was marred by police violence, and on the
anniversary of the failed declaration of independence.

In a televised address on Monday, he said his government was “committed to
implementing the republic” Catalans voted for in the referendum.

But Oriol Bartomeus, politics professor at the Autonomous University of
Barcelona, said that “listening to the speeches of the separatist leaders, it
seems like there is no plan.”

Opposition parties complain that separatists have transformed the “Diada”
into a holiday which excludes the half of the Catalan population that does
not favour independence.

“Today, more than half of Catalonia cannot celebrate anything,” said Ines
Arrimadas, head of the centre-right, anti-independence Ciudadanos party in
Catalonia.

A closely-watched Catalan government poll in July showed 46.7 percent of
Catalans want an independent state, just ahead of 44.9 percent who were
opposed.

Separatist parties won a slim majority of seats in the Catalan parliament
in a December election, even though they captured just 47.5 percent of the
popular vote.

“On a day like today, we Catalans should celebrate our national day and not
just a call for independence that is shared by less than half of the
population,” Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrel, who is Catalan, said in
Strasbourg.

– Separatist divisions –

There are also growing divisions in separatist ranks — between those who
want to provoke a clash with Madrid and those seeking a more conciliatory
approach.

“If a separatist is so naive or stupid to believe he can impose
independence on the 50 percent of Catalans who are not (separatists), it’s
clear that they are mistaken,” Joan Tarda, a lawmaker for separatist party
ERC in the Spanish parliament, said last week.

The ERC has a taken softer approach than its ally in the regional
government — former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s Together for
Catalonia.

Puigdemont was sacked by Madrid after last year’s independence declaration
and fled to Belgium.

Spain’s conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy then imposed direct rule
on Catalonia and called early elections.

Rajoy’s successor, socialist Pedro Sanchez, was catapulted to power in June
with the support of separatist parties.

Sanchez has offered the region a referendum on greater autonomy, but this
was rejected by Torra, who insists Madrid must allow a legally binding
independence referendum for Catalonia’s 7.5 million people.

BSS/AFP/MRI/2341 HRS