Just two days after the Catalan regional parliament made a unilateral declaration of independence, hundreds of thousands of people flooded into the streets of Barcelona on Sunday in a major rally in favour of the region remaining in Spain.
As at the last pro-unity rally in the Catalan capital three weeks ago, estimates on the number of demonstrators varied wildly. The organising association, the Societat Civil Catalana [SCC] put the total turnout at well over a million, while local authorities provided a much lower estimate of 300,000.
But as on the 8 October march, the dense crowds, waving both Catalan and Spanish flags, were enough to fill several of Barcelona’s broad central thoroughfares to bursting, for more than three hours on Sunday lunchtime.
The SCC had been at pains to emphasise the rally would be held under the slogan “We are all Catalonia” and was not specifically in defence of recently introduced direct rule from Madrid in the region. But one of the most popular chants for the crowds proved to be “155. The party’s over,” in reference to the article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which has permitted Madrid to intervene directly – and the intervention was stoutly defended by some of those who attended.
“It’s a stopgap solution,” one middle-aged protestor told The Independent, although she advocated harsh measures for the more radical nationalists. “They should all be sent off to work camps,” she insisted, “somewhere like Galicia” – where wildfires have devastated part of the countryside – “and things need putting to rights.” There were also repeated cries of “Puigdemont, a prisión,” referring to sending former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont to jail.
“The nationalist politicians just aren’t thinking about the whole of Catalonia, or realising that we don’t all want independence,” Javier,a longstanding resident of the region, told The Independent during the march.
“Not everything they are telling us is lies, but the solution is not in breaking away from Spain. I think the Catalan question is something that all of Spain has to have a say about, not just the Catalans. It’s one of the worst crises Spain’s ever had to face.”
Meanwhile, two Spanish top government officials have now said that Mr Puigdemont, despite being sacked on Friday, could run for re-election in the 21 December poll, although Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis added the important caveat “if he is not put in jail at that time”.
The mood was generally good humoured. El País showed footage of one elderly man, carrying a Catalan independence flag, who had somehow joined the march, receiving handshakes from a group of pro-unity supporters while another shouted, “If you have such big balls, you must be Spanish.”
However, the demonstration was marred by small outbreaks of violence including by reported right-wing extremists.
A few hundred demonstrators later moved into the Plaza Sant Jaume, in front of the regional government building, where pro-secession supporters had massed after independence was declared on Friday. Although initially peaceful, if somewhat rowdy, local media reported sporadic standoffs with the Catalan local police and scuffles, at least one involving a small group of right wing extremists, taking place in the square.
Earlier in the day near the demonstration, a taxi driver was also slightly injured in the face, when an object was flung at his car, with a small group of right wing extremists again reportedly involved.
Spain’s attorney general had already warned on Friday that charges of rebellion, which carry a maximum penalty of 30 years, are being prepared against Mr Puigdemont, and it was reported on Sunday that those accusations may well now be extended to all those considered responsible for the crafting of the declaration of independence.
With the charges possibly due to be published on Monday, the Belgian Minister for Immigration, Theo Francken, questioned on Flemish television whether Mr Puigdemont could be sure of a fair trial. Mr Francken also hinted the Catalan leader could be offered asylum. Mr Francken’s remarks provoked an angry response from the ruling Spanish Partido Popular (PP), who called his comments “unacceptable”.
Mr Puigdemont has shown no sign of wanting to leave Catalonia, and on Sunday the former deputy PM, Oriol Junqueras, insisted in an opinion column that Mr Puigdemont remained the region’s president.
“We cannot recognise the coup d’état against Catalonia, nor any of the anti-democratic decisions that the PP is adopting by remote control from Madrid,” Mr Junqueras wrote.
Verbal fireworks notwithstanding, Monday will also see if the upper echelons of the sacked Catalan government act as though they are still in control of the region on a day-to-day practical level, despite the imposition of direct rule. One top member, Josep Rull, defiantly said on Friday: “My intention on Monday is to come back not as a councillor for the regional government, but as a minister for the new Catalan republic.”
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