Catalonia presses ahead with independence vote despite court

Barcelona (AFP) - The government of Spain's wealthy Catalan region put itself on a collision course with Madrid Tuesday by vowing to press ahead with a symbolic independence vote this weekend despite a court-ordered block.

Catalan government spokesman Francesc Homs said "everything is ready" for Sunday's referendum, which will be run by volunteer poll-watchers and involve same-day registration.

"The government maintains the participation process which we understand is a way to guarantee freedom of expression," he told a news conference.

Homs was speaking just after Spain's Constitutional Court announced it had agreed to hear a suit brought against the symbolic referendum by Spain's central government, which automatically blocked the vote from going ahead while it considers arguments.

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria on Friday called the Catalan ballot plan a "legal fraud" and "a perversion" of democracy when she announced the government's lawsuit.

The head of the Catalan regional government, Artur Mas, called the symbolic vote after the Constitutional Court on September 29 suspended his initial bid to hold an official though non-binding independence referendum.

Catalan officials argue the symbolic vote, which they call a "citizen participation process", is different from the official referendum because it has a less direct government role and is legal.

- 'Lesson in democracy' -

"We are doing something different now which is tied to fundamental rights such as freedom of expression or of ideology," Homs said.

The Catalan government will now launch a lawsuit against Spain's central government for "curbing freedom of expression" by trying to stop the vote through the court, he added.

Proud of their distinct language and culture, and accounting for nearly a fifth of Spain's output, Catalonia's 7.5 million inhabitants have increasingly been demanding greater autonomy.

Catalonia formally adopted the status of a "nation" in a 2006 charter that increased its autonomy, but the Constitutional Court overruled that nationhood claim, fuelling pro-independence feeling.

Spain's recent economic crisis has increased unemployment and hardship in the region and swelled its debts, but in 2012 Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected Mas's request for greater powers for Catalonia to tax and spend.

Catalans have been fired up by last month's independence referendum in Scotland, even though voters there rejected a separation from Britain.

Hundreds of thousands of people formed a giant "V" for "vote" in downtown Barcelona on September 11, Catalonia’s national day, to push for the right to hold the referendum.

But according to a poll published last week in top-selling daily newspaper El Pais, 49 percent of Catalans are against the watered-down referendum and 44 percent in favour.

Mas has accused the central government of "abuse of power" for trying to block the referendum and has called on Catalans to vote on Sunday and "give a great lesson in democracy and civility".

His compromise has not gone down well with Catalan's pro-independence camp, with opposition parties demanding a snap regional election if he failed to deliver on the planned referendum.

The Catalan Republican Left, which props up Mas's CiU group in the regional parliament, has said Catalans should declare independence unilaterally if parties can muster a majority in favour of such a move.

Rajoy is fiercely opposed to Catalonia breaking away from Spain and has vowed to defend the unity of the country as it emerges from an economic crisis.

He said he is open to "dialogue" to settle the standoff, but only by strictly legal means.

Speaking at a business forum in Alicante, he said Spain is a much more decentralised nation than "the United States, Germany and the few federal states that exist in the world".