The Spanish government has taken legal action to stop a November referendum in the northeastern region. The move has angered many ordinary Catalans who believe Madrid has meddled too much in their affairs.
The Placa George Orwell in central Barcelona is not as glamorous as its name might suggest. Drab buildings surround the small square and on a weekday morning, its bars and cafes are mostly deserted, as trucks drive into it to unload merchandise. But the scene is brightened by the many flags hanging from the windows of the apartments that look down onto it. Most of these are the red-and-yellow striped senyera of Catalonia, but there are also several estelada, the same flag but with a white star, representing the region's independence movement.
"We all have the right to vote," says Laia Badia, a student who is crossing the square on the way to class. "We have that right and that has to be respected."
She is referring to a non-binding referendum on Catalan independence which was scheduled by the regional government to be held on November 9. The Catalan flags on show are part of the civic campaign in favor of the vote, as are posters on walls across the city bearing the Catalan language slogan "Ara es l'hora" -- meaning "now's the time."
But the central government in Madrid opposes the northeastern region's referendum, deeming it illegal. In late September, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appealed to the Constitutional Court to block the vote, following through on a pledge to do so. The court immediately accepted the appeal, meaning the referendum was automatically suspended.
The Catalan regional government, which has led the referendum project, responded on October 14 by announcing it would not hold that vote. Instead it said it would stage an alternative ballot, which it claimed would not violate the law. Catalan premier Artur Mas described it as "an advance referendum" before a definitive one that would take place in the future, possibly in the form of regional elections.
'A heavy blow'
Pro-independence Catalans such as Badia are adamant that somehow they should be able to express their opinion on November 9. They are also angry about the legal obstacles the Spanish government has put before them.
"One way or the other, we're going to vote," she says. "If those who are in Madrid don't let us vote, even though it's our right to give our opinion, it would be a really heavy blow."
The Catalan regional government and other nationalist political groups formulated the referendum's two questions in December. The first is: "Do you want Catalonia to be a state?" If the answer to that is yes, a second question follows: "Do you want that state to be independent?" According to Mas, these questions will remain intact for the alternative referendum he is planning.
Polls suggest that roughly half of Catalans would answer "yes" to both questions, although around 80 percent are in favor of being able to vote on independence.
Conflict over taxes and language
In recent years, pro-independence feeling in Catalonia has been swelling and on September 11, its national day, an estimated 1.8 million people took to the streets of Barcelona to demand the right to hold the referendum. Those who want to make the break complain that the Spanish state takes large amounts in tax revenues from Catalonia -- Spain's wealthiest region -- without reinvesting enough in its infrastructure. They also say Madrid meddles in Catalan affairs, such as stifling the use of the regional language through a new national education law.
Pau Estrada, a young computer programmer, who would vote "yes" to both of the referendum's questions, was in favor of going ahead with the original referendum plan, even though doing so would have defied the Constitutional Court and the central government.
"We have to exercise our democratic right," he said. "If the majority of people want to [vote], then we have to do so, even though that may be seen as civil disobedience."
Declaration of independence
While Catalan regional leader Mas has been under pressure from Madrid not to proceed with the original referendum plan, pro-independence parties have lobbied for him to follow the civil disobedience route. The central government has hinted that if Catalonia did take such a course of action, it might consider suspending some of the region's autonomous powers.
The Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which supported Mas' Convergence and Union coalition as it paved the way for the November referendum, suggested an even more radical path after the original plan was ruled out. ERC's leader, Oriol Junqueras, tweeted that Catalonia's pro-independence parties should form a united front in the regional parliament "in order to make a declaration of independence and start the constituent process for the Catalan republic."
Josep Ramoneda, a Barcelona-based writer and broadcaster, does not see a clear solution to the stand-off between Madrid and Catalonia. "I think it's going to be very difficult to end the impasse," he said. However, he believes that Mas will probably call early regional elections, using them as a barometer of public opinion on the independence issue.
"It's a story which for the moment probably won't have a winner and a loser," Ramoneda said. "Instead, the whole situation will just get more complicated. I think we're going to see things get more and more bogged down rather than seeing them simplified."