At least 350,000 people gathered in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, for a rally against independence from Spain. PIX: Nicolas Carvalho Ochoa/dpa

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Barcelona on Sunday to protest Catalonia’s secession from Spain, in the largest show of strength to date by unionists, who usually describe themselves as the “silent majority.”

According to the Catalan Civil Society (SCC), which organized the “Enough! Let’s go back to reason” march, more than 1 million people took part. Barcelona’s local police, the Guardia Urbana, put the number at 350,000.

“We are peaceful citizens who believe in coexistence and freedom. We will show these minoritarian secessionists that Spain is a modern country,” Nobel Literature Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa said in a speech at the end of the rally.

The 81-year-old writer and journalist, born in Peru but a nationalized Spaniard who lived in Barcelona in the 1970s, said it would “take more than a coup plot to destroy what has been built in 500 years of history.”

Starting early Sunday, people draped with Spanish and anti-independence Catalan flags – which lack the white star present on the secessionist Catalan flag – could be heard singing “We are all Catalans,” “Only one nation” and “Puigdemont in prison.”

Carles Puigdemont is Catalonia’s regional premier and the head of a secessionist coalition which organized an October 1 independence referendum that was banned by the Constitutional Court but went ahead, despite violent Spanish police attempts to stop it.

Before the march, hundreds gathered outside the local headquarters of the Guardia Civil, Spain’s military police, expressing support for its actions. On social media, people could be seen booing Catalan police, whose chief is suspected of collusion with separatists.

Protesters, some of whom arrived via bus or train from other parts of Spain, marched peacefully. They were backed by the ruling People’s Party (PP), the pro-government Catalan Ciudadanos party and, at the last minute, the opposition Socialist Party.

Turnout figures were impressive, but they were still lower than what was achieved by the pro-independence camp in an October 3 general strike, when 700,000 people took to Barcelona’s streets, according to Guardia Urbana estimates.

Despite some secessionists’ attempts to label Sunday’s march as a right-wing, authoritarian event, several people insisted that the pro-independence camp did not have a monopoly on progressive opinion.

“I’m a leftist but I do not want independence. I want Spain to become a federal state,” Angel, a 50-year-old teacher and supporter of the leftist Podemos party, told dpa.

Secession is deeply divisive: In the disputed referendum, 90 per cent of Catalans voted to break off from Spain, but the ballot was boycotted by most pro-union Catalans, and turnout was only 43 per cent.

On Sunday, a poll published by the conservative La Razon daily said 79.4 per cent of Spaniards, and 58.9 per cent of Catalans, were against the unilateral declaration of independence Catalan authorities are said to be considering.

Puigdemont is scheduled to address the Catalan parliament on Tuesday, but he is under pressure to hold off from secession plans, which would escalate what is already the biggest political crisis Spain has experienced since a 1981 failed military coup.

In an interview with Catalan broadcaster TV3, Puigdemont said he would press ahead with an independence declaration, as foreseen by the referendum law passed last month.

“We will do what the law says,” he said.

The interview was recorded a few days ago and was due to be shown later Sunday. TV3 released a few clips in advance, which were published by several Spanish media, including El Pais newspaper.

Businesses, including major banks, have started moving their legal headquarters out of Catalonia, casting doubt on whether one of Spain’s wealthiest regions would risk a major capital flight if it really broke off from Madrid.

“#RecuperemElSeny [#Letsgobacktoreason] in defence of democracy, the Constitution and freedom. We will preserve Spanish unity, #YouAreNotAlone,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wrote on Twitter, in support of the Barcelona rally.

Earlier, in an interview with El Pais newspaper, Rajoy said there could be no negotiations on defusing the crisis unless Puigdemont takes independence off the table, and did not rule out suspending Catalonia’s home-rule prerogatives – an unprecedented option. -DPA

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