BARCELONA (AFP) - Thousands of flag-waving protesters rallied in cities across Spain, including Barcelona and Madrid, in favour of national unity on Saturday (Sept 30), a day before a banned referendum on independence for Catalonia.
In Barcelona, the capital of the northeastern region, a crowd of several thousand filled a square in front of the headquarters of the regional government which is pushing ahead with the vote even though the courts have ruled it unconstitutional.
"Catalonia is Spain!" and "We are also Catalans!" they chanted in the rain.
"I am tired of this fracture, tired of this anti-democracy, tired of these impositions, of this law-breaking," said 54-year-old Maria Jose Moreno.
The referendum planned for Sunday has sown deep divisions among Catalans and stoked passions across Spain, which is experiencing one of the biggest crises since democracy was restored after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
Madrid has vowed to stop it from going ahead, closing polling stations, seizing millions of ballot papers, detaining key organisers and shutting down websites promoting the vote.
But in an interview with AFP, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont insisted that his government had "everything in place" so that the referendum could go ahead as planned in the wealthy region which is home to some 7.5 million people.
In Madrid thousands of people, many waving red and yellow Spanish flags, rallied in the central Plaza de Cibeles in front of the capital's town hall, chanting "I am Spanish, Spanish, Spanish!" - a cry usually heard during national team football matches.
Some of the demonstrators called for Puigdemont, a former journalist and a lifelong advocate of Catalan independence, to be jailed.
Eduardo Garcia, a 32-year-old high school maths teacher, accused the Catalan government of "stirring up people's lowest feelings".
"It's all very sad in the end. And now the situation is very complex once all these feelings have been awakened," he told AFP.
'NO LEADER IN SPAIN'
Many protesters faulted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government for limiting its response to the crisis to repeating that the referendum is illegal and taking steps to prevent the vote taking place.
"The state needs to explain the benefits of remaining united, instead of repeating all the time that the referendum is illegal. But there is no leader in Spain," said Rafael Castillo, a 59-year-old engineer at the rally, wearing a scarf with the Spanish flag around his neck.
Beside him stood Fernando Cepeda, a 58-year-old engineer, who said Catalonia and Spain's northern Basque Country already enjoyed more powers than German regions.
"We should not have come to this. We have reached a point of no return," said Cepeda, a Spanish flag tied around his waist.
Smaller pro-unity protests were held in several other Spanish cities including Seville, Santander, Alicante, Valencia and Malaga.
But in Bilbao, the economic capital of Spain's Basque Country where nationalist sentiments run high, roughly 40,000 people took to the streets in support of the Catalan referendum.
"We strongly maintain our defence of the right to decide," the organisers of the protest, "Gure Esku Dago", a group that lobbies for Basque self-determination whose name means "In Our Hands", said in a Twitter message.
Smaller protests in favour of the referendum in Catalonia were also held in Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern region of Galicia and in the Spanish capital.
The latest polls show around 75 per cent of Spaniards oppose the referendum, according to Lluis Orriols, a politics lecturer and expert on public opinion at the University Carlos III in Madrid.
But in Catalonia a large majority of people are in favour of holding a legal, binding vote, even if they are divided on the question of independence.