MADRID (AFP) - Spain's parliament agreed on Tuesday to debate declaring bullfighting a national cultural treasure - a step towards possibly reinstating it in the Catalonia region where it was banned a year ago.
A petition organised by the Catalan Bullfighting Federation signed by nearly 600,000 people states that "bullfighting belongs to Spain's global culture, and to the historical and cultural patrimony common to all Spaniards".
It calls for the centuries-old tradition, branded barbaric by animal rights groups, to be declared an "asset of cultural interest", which would give bullfighting greater legal and financial protection.
The lower house of parliament voted to allow a debate on the proposal, with 180 votes in favour, 40 against and 106 abstentions.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party holds an absolute majority in the parliament, making it likely the bill will pass into law.
The party hopes declaring bullfighting a cultural asset will lead to a reversal of bans on the practice in place in Catalonia and the Canary Islands.
"This is not going against Catalonia, on the contrary," Popular Party lawmaker Juan Manuel Albendea told AFP.
"We want bullfighting to return to Catalonia with agreements, not under duress." Dozens of supporters of the bill, some with pink bullfighting capes, demonstrated outside the parliament as lawmakers gathered.
"We have to defend this country's traditions and culture," said one demonstrator, Pablo Ruiz, 27, a novice bullfighter.
"We are here to defend our freedoms," said another trainee matador, Mario Alcalde, 20.
The effort to restore bullfighting in Catalonia will likely stoke tensions with the government of the wealthy northeastern region, which has promised to hold a referendum on independence from Spain next year.
Catalonia's regional parliament voted in July 2010 to ban the sport from January 2012 after animal rights groups garnered 180,000 signatures for a petition demanding a debate on the issue.
It was the first region in mainland Spain to ban the tradition, following a similar move by the Canary Islands in 1991.
Critics say the move was as much about Catalonia - which has its own distinct language and culture - underlining its regional identity as an issue of animal rights.
"We will not surrender and we will fight to preserve a decision by the Catalan people that was adopted by their representatives", said the spokesman for the left-wing Catalan nationalist party Esquerra Republicana, Alfred Bosch.
"There is a nationalist Spanish dimension to this, of pride. Since the vote in the Catalan parliament there have been voices, especially in the Popular Party, which vowed to avenge it and now they are trying to," he told AFP.
Animal rights groups have also vowed to fight the initiative.
"The popular demand for the end of bullfights, and the approval of this petition, will only fuel protests in the entire country," said the director of the Spanish branch of animal rights group AnimaNaturalis, Aida Gascon.
Opinion polls show rising opposition to bullfighting throughout Spain, especially among the young.
The number of bullfights held each year though has declined in recent years as cash-strapped municipalities have had to slash funding for festivals.
The Popular Party, which defends a more centralised Spain, has taken other steps to protect bullfighting at a time of dwindling interest in the tradition which is a symbol of the country.
Last year a new board at public broadcaster RTVE appointed by the party revoked a six-year ban on broadcasting bullfights.
The broadcaster had stopped showing bullfights in 2006, blaming the high price of the broadcasting rights, a dwindling audience and considering that the bloodshed should not be shown when children are watching television.