BARCELONA (AFP) – Catalonia faced protests by separatists on Tuesday, a day after Spain’s Constitutional Court ordered the suspension of a planned referendum on independence that was set to take place in November.
The regional government of Catalonia was preparing to launch a legal battle against the court’s move although legal experts said its options were limited.
On Monday, Spain’s Constitutional Court temporarily halted the non-binding independence vote called by Catalonia’s nationalist government for November 9 following a request from Spain’s central government that it declare the vote unconstitutional.
The court’s unanimous decision to hear the government’s case automatically suspended the independence referendum from going forward until judges hear arguments and make a decision.
The Catalan National Assembly, a powerful pressure group that has been pushing for the independence vote, responded by urging its supporters to gather outside of town halls across the wealthy northeastern region at 7pm (1700 GMT) to protest against the court’s ruling.
“Today we start building a new country! At 7:00 pm everyone outside of your town halls! Now is the time, it depends on us!,” the group said in a Twitter message.
The head of the regional government of Catalonia, Artur Mas, signed a decree on Saturday calling for the referendum.
Since then a luminous clock on Barcelona’s historic Sant Jaume square has been ticking down the minutes to the vote and Catalonia has launched a publicity campaign to inform voters about the referendum.
Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he “deeply” regretted Mas’s move, saying it “divides Catalans, alienates them from Europe and the rest of Spain and seriously harms their welfare”.
In a televised address to the nation on Monday, Rajoy said the right to decide a region’s status belonged to “all the Spanish people” under the country’s 1978 constitution – the keystone of Spain’s democracy after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco.
The president of Catalonia’s regional parliament, Nuria de Gispert, said Tuesday the assembly would request that the suspension of the referendum be “lifted immediately”.
But Antonio Torres del Moral, a constitutional law professor at Spain’s UNED University, said “the suspension can’t be appealed because it is provisional.”
“The court however is required to act quickly,” he added.
Buoyed by mass street demonstrations and inspired by Scotland’s independence referendum, Mas has pushed ahead for a vote in defiance of Rajoy’s warnings.
He has urged backers of independence to keep up pressure for the vote and has vowed to press ahead with preparations for the referendum despite the Constitutional Court’s ruling.
“I can’t pretend that this will be easy, but it doesn’t work just coming out to protest once a year,” he said during an interview with Catalan television in Saturday.
“The future is something you conquer, not a gift, and we have to earn that.”
Catalans are intensely proud of their language and culture and many of the region’s 7.5 million inhabitants feel they get a rough deal from the government in Madrid, which decides how their taxes are spent.
Catalonia formally adopted the status of a “nation” in 2006 but Spain’s Constitutional Court later overruled that claim.
Mas is under pressure from the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), the left-leaning party that props up his minority Convergence and Union (CiU) government, to defy any court order.
Earlier this month, ERC leader Oriol Junqueras said that Catalans should consider civil disobedience, “just like Martin Luther King,” if the central government denies them the chance to vote.
Mas has suggested that if the central government blocks the independence vote he could call early regional elections in Catalonia which would act as a plebiscite on the issue.