Catalonia readies for large pro-independence march

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The Catalonia region was gearing up Tuesday for what organizers hoped could be its largest ever demonstration in favor of breaking away from the rest of Spain.

Supporters of Catalan independence were optimistic that Wednesday’s demonstration will draw more than the 1 million people who filled Barcelona streets last year on the region’s Sept. 11 public holiday.

Independence campaigners plan to create a human chain stretching for over 400 kilometers (250 miles) across the economically powerful northeastern region.

The Catalan National Assembly, the group organizing the human chain, says more than 300,000 people have signed up on a website to be part of it.

The expected display of separatist sentiment comes at a critical juncture for the pro-independence movement, which since last year has been pushing for a referendum to be held in Catalonia before the end of 2014.

The Spanish government has said that such a ballot would be unconstitutional. But Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recently met privately with Catalonia’s regional leader, Artur Mas, in an apparent effort to defuse the political tension and heal grievances.

Many regional leaders, like Mas, have in recent times expressed anger about austerity policies imposed by the central government in Madrid. Those measures, designed to cut the national debt, have cut deeply into regional budgets and forced a scaling-back of some public services.

Mas says he is trying to reach a deal with Rajoy on a referendum “agreed to or tolerated by” the Spanish government. But if that is not possible then a second option would be waiting until regional elections in 2016, which would be used as a proxy vote on independence, according to Mas.

Polls indicate that the majority of Catalans agree on holding a referendum, but there is not a clear majority for independence in the region which has its own cultural traditions and language, existing side-by-side with Spanish.

Opinion surveys in the region of 7.5 million people have shown support for independence stands around 50 percent, with that support falling if independence means exiting the European Union.

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