Hundreds of thousands of Catalans rallied, on Monday, to demand their region’s secession from Spain, in a show of strength three weeks ahead of an independence referendum which has been banned by Madrid.
Draped in red, yellow and blue separatist flags, with one banner reading “Goodbye Spain”, they marched through central Barcelona in what many hope will be the last protest before independence.
Around one million people took part in the event, Barcelona’s municipal police said in a Twitter post. A spokeswoman for the central government’s representative in the wealthy northeastern region put the turnout lower, at around 350,000 people.
The protest corresponds with Catalonia’s national day, the “Diada”, which marks the fall of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714 and the region’s subsequent loss of institutions and freedoms.
Since 2012 the holiday has been used by separatists to press for an independent state.
“What more do we have to do to make it understood that the people of Catalonia want to vote?” Catalonia’s pro-independence president Carles Puigdemont told reporters at the rally.
Those against independence complained that a day meant for all Catalans had been hijacked by the separatists, and even more so this year, ahead of the referendum.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose conservative government is fiercely against the vote, wished Catalonia “a good day”, calling “for a Diada of freedom, cohabitation and respect for all Catalans”.
Demonstrators took the shape of a giant “X” by gathering on the Paseo de Gracia and Aragon avenues in central Barcelona, to represent the mark Catalans will make on their ballots during the referendum.
If the “Yes” side wins, Catalonia’s regional government has vowed to declare independence within 48 hours and set about building a sovereign state.
With Spain’s central government promising to block the referendum, the pro-independence camp was keen to show that it can rally its troops, especially after participation in the “Diada” declined last year.
Rajoy’s conservative government argues the vote violates the constitution, which states that only central authorities can call a referendum.
Following a legal challenge from his government, Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended a referendum law that was fast-tracked through Catalonia’s regional parliament on Wednesday.