The “consultation of citizens” in the wealthy northeastern region follows a legal block by the central government against a more formal, albeit still non-binding ballot which regional leaders had been pushing for.
“We have earned the right to a referendum,” said Artur Mas, head of the regional government, as he cast his ballot surrounded by cheering supporters.
“We are doing a great thing in Catalonia by defending our right to free expression and steering the political future of this country,” he said.
However, the head of Spain’s ruling party in Catalonia, Alicia Sanchez-Camacho said the vote was a sham because it offered no democratic or legal guarantees and did not have the blessing of the central government.
The ballot comes after two years of escalating tension between the central and the regional government over the issue. The government argues that Catalonia, which makes up about 16 percent of Spain’s population, cannot decide something which affects Spain as a whole on constitutional grounds.
Polls show that Catalans overwhelmingly support holding a proper referendum, regardless of their views on sovereignty.
The regional government said that at 1200 GMT, more than 1 million of the 5.4 million people eligible to vote had done so.
“If they don’t understand us, they should respect us and each of us go on their separate way,” said Angels Costa, a 52-year-old shopkeeper who voted in Barcelona.
“We would have liked to have been a federal state but that is no longer possible. They’ve trampled on us too much.”
Pro-independence organisations have campaigned vigorously for a big turnout from the wealthy region’s 7.5 million people, and more than 40,000 volunteers were helping set up informal voting stations on Sunday.
Pro-secession politicians hope a high level of support will prompt central government to sit down with them and negotiate more tax and political autonomy, or even convince Madrid to accept a full-blown independence referendum in the future.
Officials from Catalonia’s two main parties, including Mas’ center-right Convergencia i Union (CiU), have suggested that backing from more than 1.5 million citizens would help build momentum for their cause.
The vote has raised hackles in a country in which the memory of Francisco Franco’s 1939 to 1975 dictatorship and the suppression of the Catalan and Basque cultures are still vivid.
Centralist party Union, Progress and Democracy has called for charges to be pressed against Artur Mas for purportedly ignoring an order to suspend the vote, although the vote is being run by grassroots campaigners.
“The ideal scenario is the more people the better,” Oriol Junqueras, head of left-wing opposition party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), said in an interview.
“It’s clear that this consultation . . .does not give us the democratic mandate we would have in an election, but what’s important is that it is a fresh demonstration of the fact people want to vote, that they are keen to voice their opinion.”
However those who are not in favor of separation are not expected to take part.
One such is Roberto Ruiz, a 30 year old out jogging.
“No, I’m not voting. This will not make any difference and I’m against [independence] anyway. I’m Catalan but I’m Spanish too,” he said.
Opinion polls show that as many as 80 percent of Catalans back voting on the issue of Catalonia’s status, with about 50 percent in favor of full independence.
A long-standing breakaway movement in Catalonia, which accounts for one-fifth of Spain’s economic output and has its own distinct culture and language, grew in strength during the recent years of deep recession.
In early September—buoyed by a Scottish independence campaign which ultimately lost out in a referendum—hundreds of thousands of Catalans dressed in the yellow and red of their regional flag packed the streets of Barcelona, forming a huge “V” to demand the right to vote.
Officially suspended by Spain’s Constitutional Court after the Spanish government sought to stop this poll, Sunday’s vote is nonetheless expected to pass off peacefully.
Analysts say the poll results should be viewed cautiously, because opponents are likely to shun it.
“While we expect the vote to have a symbolic impact (more than one million people will likely participate) it will not carry significant political implications,” Antonio Roldan, Europe analyst at the Eurasia Group consultancy said in a note.