As marchers began gathering for the Diada rally in Barcelona, the pro-independence "Estelada" flag could be seen flying everwhere
Barcelona (AFP) - Divided after their failed 2017 secession bid, Catalan separatists will rally in Barcelona on Wednesday in a test of strength before a Spanish court rules on the fate of those who led the independence push.
September 11 is Catalonia’s national day, marking the fall of Barcelona to Spain in 1714.
Known as the “Diada”, it has always been widely observed, but since 2012 Catalan separatists have used the occasion to hold massive rallies that have drawn up to a million people.
This year’s demonstration will take place in Plaza Espana in Barcelona at 1714 (1514 GMT) in a nod to the anniversary.
The rally comes just a few weeks before the Supreme Court is to deliver verdicts in the high-profile trial of 12 separatist leaders charged over their role in Catalonia’s separatist bid, which plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in decades.
Former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras and eight others face the most serious charge of rebellion. Public prosecutors are seeking a 25-year prison term for him.
Catalan separatist leaders have for months tried to mount a united response to the looming verdicts, but they remain increasingly split over strategy.
The mood in the separatist camp is very different from two years ago when Catalonia's regional government pushed ahead with a banned independence referendum
“On the eve of these verdicts, it is important that we are seen as strong and massively mobilised,” Elisenda Paluzie, president of powerful grassroots pro-independence group ANC which organises the protest, told AFP.
The mood in the separatist camp is in stark contrast to that of two years ago when Catalonia’s regional government pushed ahead with a banned independence referendum on October 1, 2017, marred by police violence.
The separatists then made a short-lived declaration of independence.
Senior separatist leaders are in jail awaiting trial or scattered abroad, like former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont who fled to Belgium shortly afterwards.
While separatists control Catalonia’s regional government, they have been unable to agree on strategy for an independence push.
- ‘Yellow vests’ inspiration -
In the lead-up to the rally, the streets of Barcelona filled with people waving striped red-and-yellow Catalan flags and wearing T-shirts bearing separatist slogans.
“If we, the people, don’t take action, all these years will have been for nothing,” said Marc Casanova, a 37-year-old teacher who came to Barcelona for the protest with his wife and children.
In recent years, the Catalan national day has been increasingly taken over by the separatist agenda, with mass rallies calling for independence
After the verdicts are handed down, Catalans should follow the example of the “yellow vest” demonstrators in France and block roads, ports and airports “but without the violence or vandalism”, he added.
At the rally, demonstrators will form the shape of a giant star which the ANC says will symbolise a state “as well as the joint effort of the Catalan people to defend their right of self-determination”.
But many who favour staying with Spain shun the event as it has become increasingly dominated by the separatist agenda.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told parliament on Wednesday he hoped the Diada would become “the festival for all Catalans and not just a part of them.”
Writing on Twitter, Puigdemont said the rallies would “show the world that we will carry on, despite the repression”.
- ‘We are at an impasse’ -
But two years on from the independence bid, the two main separatist parties that govern Catalonia are bitterly divided over the path ahead.
Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia party has called for “confrontation” with Madrid if the Supreme Court hands down guilty verdicts.
Catalans are divided on the question of independence, polls show, but most back a referendum to settle the question
But Junqueras’ leftist party ERC has called for dialogue with Spain’s central government, which is less hostile to the separatists since Sanchez’s Socialists came to power in June 2018.
Catalan vice president Pere Aragones of the ERC on Tuesday said the “harsher the sentence… the greater the need there will be to settle this issue politically”.
The most recent Catalan government opinion poll showed 48.3 percent of those surveyed opposed independence while 44 percent were in favour.
Against this backdrop, there are fears that turnout at this year’s rally will drop.
Quim Alvarado, a 47-year-old historian from the town of Figueras, said he saw no reason to attend.
“We are at an impasse that I fear will be eternal. I am certain that my generation and the next will not see independence,” he said.
Radical separatists meanwhile have called for an alternative rally outside of Catalonia’s regional parliament, which they want to occupy.