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article imageAnxiety running high across Spain as Catalan vote looms

By Riwan Marhic and Patrick Rahir (AFP)     Sep 30, 2017 in World

Frustration and anxiety mounted across Spain on Saturday in the face of Catalonia's determination to defy Madrid and hold a banned independence referendum for the wealthy northeastern region.

In the run-up to Sunday's vote, which the courts have ruled unconstitutional, more red and yellow Spanish flags have appeared on balconies in Madrid, Seville and other cities in support of national unity.

"Before this summer the Catalan question was not a worry," said Lluis Orriols, a political science lecturer and expert on public opinion at the University Carlos III in Madrid.

"The latest polls show 75 percent of Spaniards oppose the referendum, for fear of secession," he said.

The anxiety has been fuelled by the media's focus on the issue, Orriols added, since "in reality 55 percent of Catalans reject separation even if a majority want to vote."

The apprehension is especially strong in Catalonia's neighbouring regions of Aragon to the west and Valencia to the south.

"The economy and daily life of the people of Aragon would be hugely impacted if a border went up," said Spanish author Sergio del Molino, who is from the region, which in medieval times ruled Catalonia.

"The Aragonese do not understand the demands of such a rich region and feel abandoned," added Del Molino, whose book "Empty Spain" examines the effect of mass migration to major economic centres like Madrid and Barcelona.

- 'Step backwards' -

In the village of Traiguera in the coastal region of Valencia, Amador Peset, who produces olive oil from centuries-old olive trees, said the dominant feeling was one of "sadness, because we are neighbours".

"We are taking a step backwards. My family in Barcelona thinks it's madness. Catalans criticise Madrid but they forget the rest of the country. My bottles, my labels, come from Catalan companies, and I need them for my exports," he said.

Bordered by the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, Catalonia -- which is roughly the size of Belgium -- accounts for 16 percent of Spain's population and 19 percent of its economic output.

The economic consequences of secession are also a worry in the eastern region of Extremadura, one of Spain's poorest regions, which is known for the cherries of its Jerte Valley region.

Ignacio Montero, who heads a cooperative, said his cherries pass through Catalonia on their way to France and Italy.

"If independence happened, it would be a disaster for us. We would lose everything, in addition to the unity of Spain," he said.

Keeping Spain united is also crucial for Rodrigo Marrero, a lawyer from Spain's Canary Islands who works in Madrid.

"If they left, it would be like losing a limb. And it could set a dangerous precedent at the European level," he said.

"Everyone in my entourage is saddened by the situation, it's all we talk about, it does not matter what their political leaning is."

- 'Let them vote' -

One of the arguments used by Catalan separatists is that their region pays more in taxes than it receives in investments and transfers from Madrid -- or to use a common refrain, "Spain robs us".

But the argument exasperates Jorge Garcia, secretary of the fishing federation of the northwestern region of Galicia.

"They say 'Spain robs us' but I haven't stolen from anyone," Garcia said.

"The topic tires us, we want this dispute to end because we no longer talk about the problems of the rest of the country. It is no longer a cultural question, it has become an anti-Spain sentiment. But we are Spain so we feel targeted," he added.

In the southwestern region of Andalusia, where unemployment runs high, the "intense family ties that unite the two regions" shape people's feelings about the issue, said Manuel Pena, a professor of contemporary history at Cordoba University.

"Since the 1960s, a million Andalusians have migrated to Catalonia. At the time they were considered second-class citizens, and that is a feeling that is coming back," he said.

He said that some Catalans complain that Andalusians lack a strong work ethic and benefit from the tax revenues their region transfers to Madrid.

"In response there has been a surge of nationalism in Andalusia, we see many Spanish flags at the windows."

The situation is seen differently in Spain's northern Basque Country, which already enjoys a degree of autonomy far beyond Catalonia's.

"We must let them vote, even if they vote 'no' to independence and their demands concern mostly money," said graphic designer Arantxa Beobide in the Basque town of Hernani, adding her whole family agreed.

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