2m Catalonians defy Madrid
More than two million Catalans turned out yesterday to vote on independence from Spain in a symbolic ballot, defying challenges from the Spanish government.
Voters of all ages lined up around the block, some applauding, as polling stations opened after weeks of tense legal wrangling with Spanish authorities.
In one of Spain's richest but most indebted regions, a long-standing yearning for independence has swelled over recent years as recession and political corruption scandals have shaken Spain.
The desire to break away has been 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, queueing to vote in a school in Barcelona.
Spain's conservative government challenged the vote in the courts, forcing Catalan leaders to water it down from a non-binding referendum to a symbolic vote organised by volunteers.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has vowed to defend the unity of Spain as it recovers from recession, said the vote "will not have any effect".
But voters were undeterred, fired up by the independence referendum held in Scotland in September, despite most Scots voting 'no'.
"Even though it may not be official, the important thing is that they listen to us," said Arbaizar. "The more people vote, the more noise we make, the better."
Most polls were due to stay open until 1900 GMT.
Proud of its distinct language and culture, Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people, accounts for nearly a fifth of Spain's economy.
Demands for greater autonomy there have been rumbling for years, but the latest bid by the region's president Artur Mas has pushed the issue further than ever before.
He said after voting that he hoped yesterday's vote was a step towards a full referendum.