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Catalonia's regional government has announced it will hold a referendum on separating from Spain on October 1. The Spanish government, which sees the vote as illegal, has said it will block the referendum.
The head of Spain's Catalonia said on Friday the region will hold an independence referendum on October 1 in defiance of the Spanish government.
Voters will be asked to answer yes or no to the question: "Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic," Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont said in the region's capital Barcelona.
Should a majority vote "yes," the region's pro-independence government has said it will immediately begin proceedings to separate from Spain.
Puigdemont added that the decision to hold the referendum was reached after 18 months of efforts to agree on a date and the wording of the question with the Madrid government failed.
"We have always made very diverse offers and all of them have been rejected without any exception," Puigdemont said.
Catalans to decide their future
"It is time for Catalans to decide their future," Puigdemont said, surrounded by members of his government. "It is in our hands to prove that democracy unites us all above the legitimate and healthy discrepancies that characterize mature societies," he added.
Although Catalans are divided on whether to split from Spain - with 48.5 percent against independence and 44.3 percent in favor, according to a recent poll by the regional government - almost three-quarters of respondents supported holding a referendum on the issue.
Catalonia, a wealthy region in northeastern Spain with a population of over seven million, has its own language and accounts for a fifth of Spain's GDP.
Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy and his conservative government have said they will block the Catalan government from holding an 'illegal' referendum
Spain promises to block vote
The Spanish government said on Friday that it will halt any attempt by the Catalan government to hold the vote once the regional government signs off on the referendum.
"That referendum will not take place because it is illegal," government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo told a news conference. "This is just another strategic step that doesn't lead anywhere."
Spain's Constitutional Court has already ruled against the planned referendum, and the government sees the vote as illegal.
Under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, the Spanish government has the power to intervene in Catalonia's regional government, forcing it to stop the vote. In an extreme case, Madrid could suspend the regional government's authority to rule or send in the police.
However, that option would most likely be a last resort move. Analysts believe the spat will likely result in months of legal challenges and possibly regional elections in Catalonia.
"I don't want it, I don't believe in it, and as long as I am prime minister, it won't happen," Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in May.
Legal problems ahead
Since the Constitutional Court has already ruled that the referendum is illegal, Catalan authorities face substantial challenges to hold a vote that would force people to break the law.
In particular, civil servants such as local police or the heads of schools where polling stations would need to be set up could come under fire. The referendum could force them to choose between obeying their immediate supervisors, and facing consequences for disobeying Spanish law, or sticking with the Spanish Constitution.
In 2014, pro-independence campaigners held a non-binding independence referendum in Catalonia which was organized by volunteers to circumvent court restrictions and a legal block by Madrid. Catalonia's regional leader at the time, Artur Mas, was put on trial and banned from holding office for two years over the vote.
Around two million people in Catalonia voted in favor of secession at the time, although voter turnout was low.
rs/jm (AP, AFP, Reuters)