A woman holds an Estelada or Independence flag ahead of an event promoting the start of the campaigning for the ballot in Tarragona, about 100 kilometres south of Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
TARRAGONA, Spain (AP) - Political tension in Spain mounted Thursday as Catalonia’s president opened the “yes” campaign for a regional independence referendum that has been suspended by the courts.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and other supporters of secession gathered at an arena in Tarragona, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Barcelona, to address thousands of people at the kickoff for the two-week campaign.
“Somebody thinks that we won’t vote on Oct. 1? What kind of people do they think we Catalans are?” Puigdemont asked the crowd. “In Catalonia, we are democrats.”
“Hello Republic” was one of the slogans unveiled at the rally. There is no official “no” campaign for the Oct. 1 referendum, as most of the regional and national opposition are refusing to participate in the vote.
Spain’s central government insists the referendum is illegal and the Constitutional Court has suspended it pending a formal decision by judges.
Police have orders to prevent preparations for the ballot, and Spain’s top prosecutor has said that anybody collaborating in its organization would also be legally liable.
The threats have so far had a limited effect beyond making regional authorities take lengths to try to sidestep the legal obstacles.
To shield Barcelona’s civil servants from possible prosecution, Mayor Ada Colau refused to make municipal premises available as polling places. Colau announced Thursday that voting stations would instead open in facilities owned by the regional government.
The arrangement provided a big boost for backers of the plebiscite because one-fifth of the region’s voters are registered in Barcelona. A solid turnout is considered key for the referendum’s legitimacy, although there is no minimum required for the results to be valid.
More than 700 mayors in the northeastern region are already under investigation for abetting the vote.
The defiance by Catalan separatists — and the pressure put on them by the government in Madrid — has escalated since the regional parliament paved the way for the Oct. 1 referendum last week.
In the latest move, Regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras said Catalonia would stop providing weekly spending reports to Madrid. The central government had ordered them in July to scrutinize that public funds were not being used on the illegal vote.
Speaking at Thursday night’s rally, Junqueras said Catalans “have already won” by proceeding with the referendum despite fierce opposition and legal actions against them.
“We have reached this moment stronger than what many had thought and wanted, as we are proving by responding firmly to each threat,” he said.
A judge shut down the referendum’s official website late Wednesday — but minutes later the content had been replicated through servers overseas.
Puigdemont told broadcaster TV3 on Thursday the national government in Madrid has created a “climate of hostility and paranoia” around the planned ballot.
But Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said no dialogue is possible with the Catalan authorities until they back down from their plans for a vote.
Most Catalans support a vote on whether the prosperous region’s future lies within or outside of Spain, but polls show that a referendum approved by the central government is preferred over a vote Madrid opposes.
Citizens also are divided over the independence issue. According to a June survey by the Catalan government’s own polling agency, 41 percent supported independence while 49 percent were for staying in Spain.
Outside of Catalonia, most Spaniards reject the idea.