A video conference from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside the public university in Barcelona attracts a crowd.
A video conference from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside the public university in Barcelona attracts a crowd. Manu Fernandez

Catalonia may go it alone

THE world could have a new country after an independence referendum set to be held in Spain's Catalonia region on Sunday.

The wealthy region is home to 7.5 million people and 5.5 million eligible voters and includes Barcelona. In 2015, its parliament voted to secede from Spain and part of that is Sunday's vote.

If successful, draft plans include a declaration of independence within 48 hours.

But Spanish authorities have declared the vote illegal and sent police from around the country to stop people attending polling stations.

The Madrid-based government has seized millions of ballot papers, arrested officials and left a huge ship in Barcelona's harbour housing extra Spanish police in the expectation violence may break out.

Spain's chief public prosecutor has refused to rule out arresting Catalonian regional leader Carles Puigdemont, charging him with civil disobedience, abuse of office and misuse of funds over the vote.

Local leaders say they have the right to decide the future of the region, which has a distinct language and cultural identity. However, Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly called the vote illegal. The legislation underpinning it is suspended in the Constitutional Court.

Spanish police and authorities have already engaged in a major crackdown to disrupt the vote. Seventeen people are being investigated for creating websites about the referendum and about 700 mayors are also under investigation.

Catalonia's chief public prosecutor has urged regional police to go to polling stations on the day and seize ballots and boxes, but Catalan regional chief Joaquim Forn said police would defy that order and help make sure the vote took place.

"Not only will we not stop the referendum, we will do the exact opposite: we will facilitate that the referendum takes place,” he said.

David Miquel - 25-year police veteran and the spokesman for the SPC union representing 5000 officers, said the force's image would be damaged.

"Some who saw us as heroes for finishing off the terrorists will now see us as villains. For others, we will be heroes for having upheld the law,” he said.

Francesc Vidal, who has been a police member for 16 years told AP: "We don't know how to act. We receive orders from both sides.”

Spain's Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis has remained defiant, saying even if the new country is created it will not matter.

"A hypothetical declaration of independence won't lead to anything because no one would recognise it,” he said.

"They need to stop lying, come back to reason and accept that we will all find a place for Catalonia within Spain.”

Catalan UK board member Andreu Quintana, 40, said he had personally voted to split from Spain, hoping to give the government a "good shake”.

While not an official position of the organisation, he told news.com.au his personal decision is down to what he sees as corruption, elitism and double standards from the Madrid-based government and said many people feel unable to hold a dual Spanish and Catalan identity.

"It's not healthy for anyone, let alone us, that we have another language, another society. We are not based in the past but in the future.

"[The Spanish government] have tried to crush and never try and solution to improve the situation.”

He said reports of raids and arrests must "sound like science fiction” to people outside Spain, it has been "pure provocation” from the Spanish leaders.

"They are sending the paramilitary police to be deployed there even with tanks. They have ships in the harbour of Barcelona full of policeman ready to attack ... it's not the way to proceed.”

Polls show voters are divided on the issue but many want a free and fair referendum to settle the matter.

The vote has attracted supporters from Scotland who have travelled to Spain to support those campaigning for independence following their own failed referendum bid in 2014.

Scottish National Party youth leader Rory Steel will travel there with about 20 people to "support them” and "trade experiences”.

Former legislator George Kerevan founded a parliamentary group on Catalonia and said the "worst thing” would be to let "Madrid crush Catalan democracy.”

"If you believe in a Scottish democracy, if you believe in a Scottish right to vote, then you have to defend Catalonia's right to vote. We are Catalans and Catalans are Scottish,” he said.

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