Catalonia’s mayors caught in referendum crossfire

Barcelona (AFP) – Whether they have come out as supporters or opponents of an independence referendum banned by Madrid, Catalan mayors are all under pressure and some even say they have received death threats.

The tense situation is but one illustration of the passions raised by the drive for independence in a region that remains sharply divided over whether it wants to separate from Spain.

On Saturday, more than 700 pro-referendum mayors protested in Barcelona, brandishing their maces and singing the official hymn of the northeastern region, whose separatist executive is preparing to hold a referendum on October 1.

Resolute and calm, they made light of the risks they are taking after Spain’s public prosecutor ordered a criminal probe and threatened to arrest them if they refuse to comply with Madrid’s order not to hold a vote deemed unconstitutional.

Supporters also took part, shouting “we are with you,” and Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau and Catalan President Carles Puigdemont met them.

“I’m not protesting in support of independence but in support of voting,” said Josep Sole, the 74-year-old mayor of La Maso, a small 300-strong village in southern Catalonia.

– ‘Want to express themselves’ –

Sara Janer, the 26-year-old mayor of the small village of Pontils, said she had been elected to “listen” to her residents.

“If the Catalan government gives us the opportunity to express ourselves, we should get the ballot boxes out,” she said.

“Catalans really want to express themselves, that’s for sure.”

With a majority in the Catalan parliament since 2015, the separatists are bent on holding the referendum. But Madrid is pulling out the stops to stop it going ahead.

On top of legal threats to mayors, police have also been ordered to seize any items that could be used for the vote.

Puigdemont has said he will start taking steps towards separating from Spain if “yes” wins the day on October 1, regardless of the turnout.

How that will work remains unclear given Madrid’s determination to stop the separatists.

Catalonia, however, remains sharply divided.

The most recent poll commissioned by the regional government in July showed 49.4 percent of Catalans were against independence while 41.1 percent supported it.

At the protest, Colau clearly expressed her “solidarity” with the pro-referendum mayors.

But in her 1.6 million-strong city where separatists are in the minority, she did not join them in shouting “Long live a free Catalonia”, “We will vote” and “Independence.”

“We will build the…

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