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600,000 Protesters in Barcelona Call for Independence From Spain

BARCELONA, Spain — Hundreds of thousands of Catalans demonstrated in Barcelona on Wednesday in favor of independence from the rest of Spain, but their numbers were smaller than in previous years, underlining deep divisions within the independence movement.

For an eighth consecutive year, pro-independence protesters used Catalonia’s national day to press their cause. They also called for the release of jailed pro-independence politicians.

About 600,000 people took part in the rally, according to local police, down from about one million in 2018.

“We all still want to have an independent Catalan republic but we don’t all agree on what kind and how to get there, which is what happens when our best politicians are now being held in prison and silenced by the Spanish state,” said Anna Riba, 26, one of the demonstrators.

The leaders of the separatist movement are divided over how to revive a movement that came to an abrupt and chaotic halt in October 2017, when Spain’s central government imposed a period of direct rule on the region after a secession attempt.

In recent weeks, politicians from various pro-independence parties have been squabbling over whether to call new regional elections, or to push for secession again. The fracture has been deepened by a rift between two of the main separatist leaders, who are at loggerheads over the issue.

Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of Catalonia who has been living in Brussels to avoid prosecution in Spain on charges of rebellion, doesn’t want to hold regional elections.

Oriol Junqueras, the former deputy leader who is in jail awaiting a judicial verdict on charges of rebellion and other crimes, favors regional elections. Mr. Junqueras could face up to 25 years in prison if found guilty of rebellion.

The Spanish government could exploit these divisions to help end the territorial conflict. But Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has his own political problems.

His Socialist party won a clear-cut general election in April, but he failed in July to get a majority in Parliament to vote him into office as prime minister.

Since then, he has been trying unsuccessfully to form a coalition government with the far-left Unidas Podemos party, raising the likelihood of another general election in November to help break the deadlock. It would be the fourth election in Spain in four years, a mark of the fragmentation of the country’s politics.

Mr. Sánchez has until Sept. 23 to get voted into office by Parliament, or instead force voters to return to the polls in November.

At Catalonia’s national day celebration, known as the Diada, some participants said their main concern was the outcome of the trial of Mr. Junqueras and 11 other former separatist leaders, whose charges include rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.

The Supreme Court is expected to announce its ruling by mid-October, by which time Mr. Junqueras and other defendants will have spent two years in jail, after being denied bail in late 2017.

During a recent visit to Madrid, Quim Torra, the regional president of Catalonia, warned that the conviction of former separatist leaders could trigger civil disobedience in Catalonia and major street protests, like those in Hong Kong.

One demonstrator said he was not worried about the fragmentation of the pro-independence movement.

“There is always a period of fragmentation after the kind of defeat that we suffered in 2017,” said Roger Mallola.

Last month Mr. Mallola co-founded an association to help promote a new generation of politicians firmly committed to unilateral independence. “We need to reorganize, but I’m certain that it’s just a matter of time,” he said.

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