One Spain: Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona on Sunday in one of the largest displays of support for a united Spain. About half the voters in Catalonia oppose secession, a poll showed. Picture: REUTERS
One Spain: Pro-unity supporters take part in a demonstration in central Barcelona on Sunday in one of the largest displays of support for a united Spain. About half the voters in Catalonia oppose secession, a poll showed. Picture: REUTERS

Barcelona — Hundreds of thousands of supporters of a unified Spain filled Barcelona’s streets on Sunday in one of the biggest shows of force yet by the so-called silent majority that has watched as regional political leaders push for Catalan independence.

Political parties opposing a split by Catalonia from Spain had a small lead in an opinion poll published on Sunday, the first since Madrid called a regional election to try to resolve the country’s worst political crisis in four decades.

Polls and recent elections have shown that about half the electorate in the wealthy northeastern region, which is already autonomous, oppose secession from Spain, but a vocal independence movement has brought the current crisis to a head.

Spain’s central government called an election for December 21 on Friday after sacking Catalonia’s president Carles Puigdemont, dissolving its parliament and dismissing its government. That followed the assembly’s unilateral declaration of independence from Spain in a vote boycotted by three national parties.

The regional government claimed it had a mandate to push ahead with independence after an unofficial referendum on October 1 that was ruled illegal under Spanish law and mostly boycotted by unionists.

Waving thousands of Spanish flags and singing "Viva Espana", protesters on Sunday turned out in the largest display of support for a united Spain since the beginning of the crisis — underlining the depth of division in Catalonia itself.

"I’m here to defend Spanish unity and the law," said Alfonso Machado, 55, a salesman standing with a little girl with Spanish flags in her hair.

"Knowing that in the end there won’t be independence, I feel sorry for all the people tricked into thinking there could be and the divisions they’ve driven through Catalan society." The Sigma Dos poll of 1,000 people for newspaper El Mundo, which opposes independence, showed anti-independence parties winning 43.4% support and pro-independence parties 42.5%. It was taken from Monday to Thursday, just as the central government prepared to take control of Catalonia.

Madrid said on Saturday that secessionist politicians including Puigdemont, were free to take part in the December 21 election. The hardline CUP party has been unclear if it would.

With weeks still to go before that date, the poll showed the CUP, kingmaker for the pro-secessionists in the dismissed 135-seat parliament, would win seven seats, down from 10.

The pro-independence coalition Junts pel Si, which held 62 seats previously, was split into parties PDeCat and ERC for the poll as they are unlikely to run on a single platform.

In a speech at Sunday’s unity rally, former European Parliament president Josep Borrell called for voters to turn out en masse in December to ensure independence supporters lose their stranglehold on the regional parliament.

"Maybe we’re here because many of us during elections didn’t go and vote. Now we have a golden opportunity. This time, nobody should stay at home," he told a cheering crowd.

Reuters

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