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Catalan leader says he must 'apply the law' after independence referendum

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is required by law to announce independence by tomorrow evening.

Demonstration against Catalan independence - Barcelona Source: Boivin Samuel via PA Images

PRESSURE IS MOUNTING against Catalan plans to declare independence after hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied to defend Spanish unity.

The protests followed days of soaring tensions after police cracked down on voters during a banned 1 October Catalan independence referendum, prompting separatist leaders to warn they would unilaterally break away from Spain in days.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who has yet to decide whether to declare independence in defiance of Spanish authorities, is set to address the regional parliament on tomorrow evening.

Because of reforms that the Catalan government rushed through parliament ahead of the independence vote, he says he’s required to make a unilateral declaration of independence.

“The declaration of independence, that we don’t call a ‘unilateral’ declaration of independence, is foreseen in the referendum law as an application of the results. We will apply what the law says,” Puigdemont says in the programme on Catalonia’s TV3, according to excerpts on the broadcaster’s website.

But the reaction to the increasing likelihood of an independent Catalonia has prompted businesses to move their operations out of the wealthy region, and thousands of Spaniards and Catalans to march in support of keeping Spain united.

Spain: Anti-referendum protest in Barcelona Source: Julien Mattia via PA Images

Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of flag-waving demonstrators, calling themselves a “silent majority”, packed central Barcelona yesterday to protest against independence, which has sparked the country’s worst political crisis in a generation.

Around 350,000 people attended the rally, municipal police said, while organisers put turnout at between 930,000 and 950,000.

Some protesters called for Puigdemont to go to jail for holding the independence vote.

Others called for dialogue. The slogan for the demonstration – organised by the Societat Civil Catalana, the main anti-independence group in Catalonia – was: “Enough, let’s recover good sense!”

Let’s talk?

Tentative signs emerged last week that the two sides may be seeking to defuse the crisis after Madrid offered an apology to Catalans injured by police during the vote.

But on the eve of yesterday’s rally, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to rule out suspending Catalonia’s regional autonomy – a move that risks further unrest.

Rajoy assured Catalan leaders that there “is still time” to backtrack and avoid the imposition of direct rule from Madrid.

Kofi Annan, in his role as chairman of The Elders, a group of notable public figures formed in 2007 to promote peace, said: “The constitutional crisis that is unfolding in Spain calls for consultation and not confrontation.

“I urge the Spanish government and the regional government of Catalonia to renew their commitment to a resolution through dialogue,” the former UN secretary-general added.

Recent polls indicated that Catalans are split on independence, though regional leaders said police violence during the referendum turned many against Madrid.

Police said 700,000 people joined a pro-independence protest in Barcelona two days after the vote.

Spain: Pro-Unity Rally against Catalonian Independence Source: Christian Minelli via PA Images

With its own language and cultural traditions, demands for independence in Catalonia date back centuries but have surged during recent years of economic hardship.

The latest crisis has raised fears of unrest in Catalonia, a northeastern region about the size of Belgium that is home to 7.5 million people and accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy.

At yesterday’s rally, demonstrators cheered and applauded when a national police helicopter flew over and some people shook the hands of national police officers to thank them for their efforts to stop the referendum.

Demonstration against Catalan independence - Barcelona Source: Boivin Samuel via PA Images

But protesters jeered members of Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, which had largely ignored a court order to close polling stations and seize ballot boxes during the referendum.

Dozens of protesters surrounded two Mossos vans and called the officers standing on guard in front of them “traitors”.

‘Fanaticism’

Nobel literature prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa warned in an address to the crowd at the end of the rally that “passion can be destructive and ferocious when it is fuelled by fanaticism and racism”.

The worst of all, the one that has caused the most ravages in history, is nationalist passion.

The Catalan government on Friday published final results from the referendum indicating that 90% of voters backed the proposal to break away from Spain.

Turnout was 43% as Catalans who reject independence largely boycotted the polls.

The vote was not held according to official electoral standards as there were no regular voter lists, electoral commission or observers.

© AFP 2017 With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

Read: Thousands take to the streets of Barcelona campaigning against independence

Read: ‘Rajoy, you wuss. Defend the nation’: Thousands protest in Madrid for Spanish unity

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