More than two million Catalans voted on Sunday in an unofficial referendum on whether to split from Spain and become an independent state, a question that was answered with a resounding "Yes."
Over 80 percent of voters backed full independence for the northeastern region of Catalonia in the non-binding consultation, held in defiance of objections from the Spanish government, which filed a case with the country's constitutional court to prevent a referendum going ahead.
However Artur Mas, the regional president, had vowed to press ahead with a watered-down vote in the form of a straw poll, insisting that such a move legitimately circumvented the ban.
He remained defiant after the ballot, insisting at a press conference: "If the public prosecutor wants to blame someone, it should be me."
Mas hailed the symbolic referendum as a clear indication of the will of Catalonia's 7.5 million people and said he would write to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, urging him to grant the autonomous region a real, binding one.
"We have earned the right to a referendum," he told supporters. "Once again Catalonia has shown that it wants to rule itself."
"We want to decide a new political future. All nations have a right to do so and mature democracies respect that," Mas insisted.
Justice Minister Rafael Catala meanwhile dismissed the vote as "a sterile and useless sham" that intensified political divisions, claiming Mas had gone ahead with it to "hide his failure" in his bid to hold a real referendum.
"The government considers this to be a day of political propaganda organized by pro-independence forces and devoid of any kind of democratic validity," Catala said in a statement.
Citizens were asked for their response to two questions regarding Catalonia's political future. The first was: "Do you want Catalonia to be a state?" If answered affirmatively, the ballot paper posed a second: "Do you want that state to be independent?"
With 90 percent of polling stations returning results at midnight on Sunday, the option "yes-yes" to both questions had won a massive majority, with 80.72 percent of the votes cast. Another 10.11 percent answered "yes" to the first question and "no" to the second. Lastly, the remaining 4.55 percent voted "no."
The day passed without major incident, and was lauded by a delegation of international observers invited by the Catalan government as "an example of both successful democracy and participation."
Some 942 towns and cities, out of the 947 in Catalonia, participated in the symbolic vote, while 19 additional polling stationswere installed in cities around the world. In some, such as London and Paris, people stood in line for more than two hours.
Madrid and the Catalan regional government have long been on a collision course over the independence bid. Even though the Rajoy administration was never going to allow a referendum on self-determination — an act which is illegal under Spanish law — Mas submitted a decree for a non-binding referendum which in September was approved by the regional parliament by 106 votes in favor to 28 against. However, the Spanish constitutional court then issued a judgment that even that vote would be against the law.
Faced with the impossibility of carrying out either an official independence referendum such as the one held in Scotland on September 18 nor even a non-binding consultation, Mas decided to announce an alternative vote that he qualified as a "process of citizen participation." In the face of threats from the Spanish government to close polls and remove ballot boxes should the Catalan authorities get involved in the organization of the event, the vote was ultimately staged by 40,000 volunteers and without the use of the official electoral roll.
Recent opinion polls have shown a groundswell of support for a referendum, and according to the Center for Opinion Studies 60 percent of Catalans now back the notion of independence.
The region has also seen an increasing number of large scale demonstrations in favor of self-determination. On September 11, Catalonia's national day, over 1.8 million people marched down the streets of Barcelona demanding the right to hold a referendum.
Independence supporters are unhappy with the constitutional deal surrounding the status of the wealthy autonomous region, and argue that they pay much more into the state than they receive back. The economic crisis, added to the perception of many Catalans that Rajoy's centralizing policies have further worsened the situation, have led independence supporters to multiply.
Critics of the Catalan government and those who wish to remain part of Spain accuse Mas of using the issue as a smokescreen to deflect attention from the cutbacks made in public services in the name of austerity measures.
Both the Catalan leadership and civil society have criticized Madrid's unwillingness to allow citizens to have their say, and have seized upon the example of September's independence referendum in Scotland — a vote which was vociferously opposed by the Rajoy government as a political precedent. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the main opposition Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) warned Rajoy that the constitution — written in 1978 while the country was still undergoing a transition to democracy following the death of the military dictator Francisco Franco — is not sacred and argued for reform. However, he too has stopped short of entertaining a self-determination referendum, instead calling for a federal model for Spain.
For its critics in Madrid and supporters in Barcelona, Sunday's vote conjured images that were worlds apart. To Spain's ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) it was a "picture of thousands of people building walls."
Meanwhile Carme Forcadell, president of the Catalan National Assembly, a non-governmental pro-independence group spearheading the grassroots effort, said it had already won since "we have finally been able to vote."