More than half a million people have gathered in Barcelona on Catalonia’s national day (Diada) to renew calls for regional independence as Spain awaits the verdict in the landmark trial of 12 separatist leaders over the failed breakaway bid two years ago.
Despite the politically charged atmosphere, police in the Catalan capital said that around 600,000 people had taken part in the annual event – dramatically down on the 1 million who turned out for the previous two Diadas.
Although the occasion officially commemorates the fall of Barcelona at the end of the Spanish war of succession in 1714, in recent years pro-independence groups have used it as a show of strength and a means to focus attention on the cause.
When the independence movement first erupted in 2012, 1.5 million people took part in the Diada, rising to 1.8 million two years later.
This year’s decreased turnout – the lowest in seven years – comes amid growing splits, squabbling and uncertainty within the secessionist movement.
Speaking on the eve of the Diada, Catalonia’s pro-independence regional president, Quim Torra, had urged people to “take to the streets and squares to proclaim our full and non-negotiable commitment to democracy, to social, civil and political rights, and to the flag of freedom, always and everywhere”.
In the lead-up to the rally, the streets of Barcelona had filled with people waving striped red-and-yellow Catalan flags and wearing T-shirts bearing separatist slogans.
“If we, the people, don’t take action, all these years will have been for nothing,” Marc Casanova, a 37-year-old teacher, told Agence France-Presse.
He said that, once the verdicts had been handed down, Catalans should follow the example of the “yellow vest” demonstrators in France and block roads, ports and airports – “but without the violence or vandalism”.
Earlier this week the regional vice-president, Pere Aragonès, said the court’s decision could trigger “massive, peaceful civil demonstrations” and lead to the formation of a regional “government of national unity” to try to force the Spanish government to seek a negotiated, political solution.
The independence movement has lost momentum as different blocs argue over the best way forward.
Torra and Puigdemont favour a continuing confrontation with Madrid, while Junqueras and Aragonès’ Catalan Republican Left party are more inclined towards negotiations.
“I don’t believe in politicians,” Cristina Montero, who attended the march with her partner and teenage son, told Reuters.
“I believe in the sentiment of the people coming here.”