BARCELONA (AFP) – Spain’s Catalonia region voted in a symbolic ballot Sunday on whether to break away as an independent state, defying fierce challenges by the Spanish government.
Voters formed long queues outside polling stations and some applauded as the ballots opened on Sunday morning, after weeks of tense legal wrangling with Spanish authorities.
One of Spain’s richest but most indebted regions, Catalonia’s long-standing yearning for greater autonomy has swelled in recent years of economic hardship, sharpened by resistance from Madrid.
“This is an opportunity we could not miss … We have been demanding it for a very long time,” said Martin Arbaizar, 16, queuing under blue skies to vote at a polling station in a school in Barcelona.
The Spanish government challenged the vote in the courts, forcing Catalan leaders to adapt it from an official but non-binding referendum to a symbolic vote organised by volunteers.
“Even though it may not be official, I think the important thing is that they listen to us,” said Arbaizar.
“The more people vote and the more noise we make, the better.”
Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government has vowed to defend the unity of the country, as it recovers from a steep economic downturn.
His government has mounted a series of constitutional appeals to try to block the vote.