Large crowds gathered in Barcelona on Sunday to rally in favor of national unity following a declaration of independence by Catalonia's government and its subsequent dismissal.
Rally organizers estimated 1.1 million showed up, while police put the number at 300,000. People were draped in Spanish flags and shouting "prison for Puigdemont" and "Viva Espana!"
Deposed regional President Carles Puigdemont could face criminal charges for his role in the
Organizers said their goal was to defend Spain's unity and reject "an unprecedented attack in the history of democracy." Members of the central government and main pro-union parties joined tens of thousands of people in the march, with the slogan "We are all Catalonia. Common sense for coexistence!"
Ines Arramadas, the leader of Catalonia's main opposition party Ciudadanos told journalists at the march that most Catalonians wished to "recover our future," Arramadas said. "Today the silenced majority of Catalonia returns to the streets. It once again shows with dignity and respect, that the majority of Catalans feel Catalan, Spanish and European."
Pro-unity parties with 43 percent support
An opinion poll published Sunday found pro-unity political parties had a small lead. The poll was the first since Madrid called a regional election and was conducted by Sigma Dos for newspaper El Mundo, which opposes independence. It put support for anti-independence parties at 43.4 percent support and pro-independence parties at 42.5 percent.
"In my town, I am unable to leave my house with the Spanish flag," 19-year-old student Marina Fernandez from Girona, a separatist stronghold, told AFP news agency. "I am enraged about what they are doing to the country that my grandparents built."
"Catalan leaders have broken the law. The central government has let this situation go for too long, for even 30 or 40 years, thinking that we were never going to arrive to this extreme, but here we are," Angelita Cuesta, a 66-year-old retiree, told the Associated Press at the rally. "Our society is fractured, there are family members and friends who no longer can talk about politics to avoid conflict."
The rally was called by Grassroots group Societat Civil Catalan. "We have organized ourselves late, but we are here to show that there is a majority of Catalans that are no longer silent and that no longer want to be silenced," Societat Civil Catalana president Alex Ramos said.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy earlier imposed direct rule on the region and appointed his deputy Soraya Saenz de Santamaria to lead the region. She will coordinate with central government ministry undersecretaries to take over the responsibilities of Catalan ministries.
Saenz de Santamaria — who has been vocal in her criticism of the past Catalan leadership — warned there could be "dismissals of employees who continue to overtly disrespect the constitution."
She has labeled the Catalan quest for independence "a farce" and said that police violence against voters and protesters at the time of the October 1 independence referendum was "proportionate."
Puigdemont could stand again
Spain's Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis told the Associated Press on Sunday that it was feasible that the Catalonia crisis could end with more independence for the region.
In an interview with the news agency in Madrid, Dastis said Puigdemont would be eligible to run in the December regional elections, unless he was in prison. Puigdemont's pro-independence party
could "theoretically" put him up as a candidate "if he is not put in jail at that time."
Rajoy on Friday dissolved Catalonia's parliament and set the date for regional elections to December 21, as part of an effort to "restore normality."
The move came after the Spanish Senate gave his government sweeping powers to impose direct rule on the region of some 7.5 million people.
That came after Catalan lawmakers under secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont voted for a unilateral declaration of independence.
aw, rc/jm (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)