The vast crowd filled Barcelona's Plaza Espana and the surrounding streets / © AFP
Some 600,000 people hit the streets of Barcelona in support of Catalan independence on Wednesday, police said, with the figures significantly lower than 2018 during a mass rally billed as a test of strength for the region's divided separatist movement.
The figure is the lowest turnout for the mass separatist rally held each year on Catalonia's national day, known as the "Diada", which marks the fall of Barcelona to Spain in 1714, since the first one was staged in 2012.
Last year, around a million people turned out for the demonstration.
This year's rally comes just weeks ahead of a crucial ruling by the Supreme Court in the trial of 12 separatist leaders who led the failed 2017 bid for independence, triggering Spain's worst political crisis in decades.
But two years on from the failed independence push, the separatist movement remains sharply divided, and Wednesday's turnout was likely to disappoint organisers who had chartered hundreds of buses to bring in supporters.
The rally comes at a critical point for Catalan separatists, who remain bitterly divided two years after a failed bid to declare independence from Spain / © AFP
Wearing turquoise T-shirts and waving striped red-and-yellow Catalan separatist flags, protesters gathered in Plaza Espana, among them families with young children and pensioners carrying camping chairs.
The rally comes at a critical time for the separatist movement ahead of the Supreme Court ruling in October.
Nine of the separatist leaders face the most serious charge of rebellion, including former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras, for whom prosecutors have sought a 25-year jail term.
If they are convicted, Catalans must flood the streets in protest, insisted 55-year-old teacher Lourdes Vilardaga, telling AFP she hoped the region's leaders would be "up to the task".
"Maybe we thought independence would be a switch that you turn on and that's it. Now we see it's a long-distance race, more difficult, but there is no turning back."
- 'Confrontation' -
On October 1, 2017 the regional government of Catalonia, which accounts for about one fifth of Spain's economic output and is home to some 7.5 million people, pushed ahead with a banned independence referendum.
Rallying under the slogan "Objective Independence", thousands gathered in Barcelona's Plaza Espana, among them families with children, young people and pensioners / © AFP
But the vote was marred by police violence, and although the separatists made a declaration of independence, it was short-lived.
Today, many senior separatist leaders not behind bars have fled the country, including former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont who is now based in Belgium.
Organisers chartered hundreds of buses to bring people in for the rally which is being held on the Diada, Catalonia's national day / © AFP
The two main separatist parties that govern Catalonia have been unable to agree on how to continue pushing for independence.
Catalan president Quim Torra's Together for Catalonia party has called for "confrontation" with Madrid while Junqueras' leftist party ERC has called for dialogue with Spain's central government, which is less hostile to the separatists since the Socialists came to power in June 2018.
"We will once again exercise any right which we are denied, including that of self-determination," Torra told reporters on Wednesday at the rally.
- 'Taken steps backwards' -
Ruben Saez, a 20-year-old illustration student with a Catalan separatist flag draped across his back, said people were "fed up" with the in-fighting which was "causing a lot of damage" to the movement.
Many people were wearing turquoise shirts which organisers said symbolised hope for the region's eventual independence / © AFP
"Instead of fighting for a common goal, the parties are competing amongst themselves," he added.
The Catalan national day has always been widely observed, but since 2012 Catalan separatists have used the occasion to hold massive rallies. Many who favour staying with Spain shun the event.
Of all the Diada rallies which grassroots group ANC has staged since 2012, this was the "most difficult" to organise, group president Elisenda Paluzie told reporters. But despite the drop in turnout, she still deemed the event a success.
"We once again filled the streets of Barcelona with hundreds of thousands of people," Paluzie said before lashing out at Catalonia's current leaders for not doing enough to advance the cause of independence.
"Not only have we not made progress, but we have taken steps backwards," she said.
The most recent Catalan government opinion poll showed 48.3 percent of those surveyed opposed independence while 44 percent were in favour.