Catalans voted in an unofficial independence referendum on Sunday that could take the region closer to seceding from Spain.
The Spanish judiciary had ruled the vote unconstitutional but it went ahead anyway with strong grassroots support.
“We have earned the right to a referendum,” said regional president Artur Mas as he cast his ballot in Barcelona.
“We are doing a great thing in Catalonia by defending our right to free expression and steering the political future of this country,” he added.
Voters were asked whether they wanted a Catalan state and whether that state should be independent from Spain.
Mas had argued that local elections due in November 2016 could be brought forward and turned into a de facto referendum on whether or not Catalans wanted to secede from Spain. The Constitutional Court in Madrid disputed that argument, saying no independence vote could take place without the central government’s blessing.
However, the Madrid government has tried to block increased autonomy for what is Spain’s richest region at almost every turn.
The Catalan culture and language were suppressed for almost forty years when Spain was a dictatorship. After Francisco Franco died in 1975 and Spain transitioned to democracy, a new constitution gave Catalonia autonomy. It wasn’t until 2006 that the region actually got some powers. An overwhelming 74 percent of voters approved the constitutional changes in a referendum that defined Catalonia as a “nation” and gave it its own parliament. The Catalan government was given broad powers over cultural, education, health, justice and transportation policy.
But other regions and Spanish nationalists were dismayed by the changes and fought to reverse them. After four years, Spain’s highest court ruled that fourteen of the new statute’s articles were unconstitutional and a further 27 had to be rewritten. Perhaps most painfully, it said the definition of Catalonia as a “nation” had no legal standing.
Polls show support for independence has since surged, from 13 percent in 2005 to 45 percent this year.
Many of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents also feel they are bearing the brunt of Spain’s economic crisis. The region has 16 percent of the country’s population but produces more than a fifth of its economic output, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other parts of Spain.