Catalan nationalists and Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

Thousands of pro-unity demonstrators opposing a banned referendum on Catalonian independence from Spain gathered in a Barcelona square on Saturday in a sign of how the disputed vote on Sunday has divided the country.

The referendum, declared illegal by Madrid, has thrown the country into its worst constitutional crisis in decades and raised fears of street violence as a test of will between the central government and the wealthy northeastern region plays out.

Demonstrators waving Spanish flags filled the central square outside the seat of the regional government and Barcelona city hall. One man burnt the Catalan flag while a group tried to tear down a banner reading ‘More democracy’ hanging from the front of the town hall to cheers from the crowd.

Hours before voting was due to start, it was still unclear whether the referendum would go ahead despite the regional government’s assertions that it will proceed and Madrid’s insistence that it will block the move.

Tens of thousands of Catalans are expected to attempt to vote on Sunday, although the ballot that will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain’s Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 constitution.

Catalonia has 7.5 million people, many of whom speak the Catalan language, and has a larger economy than Portugal. (Reuters)

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Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A pro independence supporter waves an ”esteleda”, or Catalan pro independence flag, during a rally in support of the Catalonia’s secession referendum, in Bilbao, northern Spain, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. Catalonia’s planned referendum on secession is due to be held Sunday by the pro-independence Catalan government but Spain’s government calls the vote illegal, since it violates the constitution, and the country’s Constitutional Court has ordered it suspended. (Photo: Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont gestures during an AFP interview in Girona on Sept. 30, 2017. The mission was entrusted to him almost by accident, but he accomplished it with determination. Deaf to the warnings of Madrid, the Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont is determined to organize a referendum on Oct.1, 2017, hoping to fulfill his dream of youth: an independent Catalonia. (Photo: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

Demonstrators shout during a protest in favour of a unified Spain a day before the banned October 1 independence referendum, on Sant Jaume square in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Pro independence supporters take part in a rally in support for the Catalonia’s secession referendum, in Bilbao, northern Spain, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo: Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

A demonstrator waves a pre-constitutional Spanish flag in front of city hall during a demonstration in favor of a unified Spain a day before the banned October 1 independence referendum, in Madrid, Spain, Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo: Sergio Perez/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Pro independence supporters carry mock ballot boxes, with an “estelada”, or Catalan pro independence flag, and an “Ikurrina”, or Basque regional flag, right, during a rally in support of the Catalonia’s secession referendum, in Bilbao, northern Spain, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo: Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A farmer raises his fist at an overflying police helicopter while driving his tractor in a protest to show support for the banned referendum on independence from Spain in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 29, 2017. (Photo: Juan Medina/Reuters)

Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

Anti-independence demonstrators march in protest against the independence referendum on Sept.30, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. The Catalan government is keeping with its plan to hold a referendum, due to take place on Oct. 1, which has been deemed illegal by the Spanish government in Madrid. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A hand is seen through a giant Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) in the University of Barcelona’s historic building a day before the banned Oct. independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo: Enrique Calvo/Reuters)

Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

Anti-independence demonstrators march waving Spanish flags against the referendum downtown Barcelona Saturday, Sept. 30 2017. (Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

Demonstrators holding a banner that reads “Catalonia is Spain” march defending the unity of Spain and against a disputed referendum on the region’s independence that separatist politicians want to hold Sunday, in Barcelona Saturday, Sept. 30 2017. (Photo: Manu Fernandez/AP)

Catalan nationalists and Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

Thousands of pro-independence supporters march with a banner reading in Basque “democracy” during a rally in support of the Catalonia’s secession referendum, in Bilbao, northern Spain, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo: Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Women walk past a poster reading in Catalan “We will vote” in Barcelona Saturday, Sept. 30 2017. Catalonia’s planned referendum on secession is due to be held Sunday by the pro-independence Catalan government but Spain’s government calls the vote illegal, since it violates the constitution, and the country’s Constitutional Court has ordered it suspended. (Photo: Bob Edme/AP)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

People applaud during the closing meeting of the Catalan pro-independence groups and political parties that campaign for ‘Yes’ in the upcoming Oct. 1 referendum on self-determination in Catalonia, in Barcelona on Sept. 29, 2017. (Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

Catalan nationalists and Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont addresses the crowd of people attending a closing rally in favour of the banned Oct. 1 independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 29, 2017. (Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters)

Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

A man holds up a scarf with the colors of the Spanish flag as he takes part in a protest called by a group of Spanish friends outside the Palau de la Generalitat, the regional government headquarters, ahead of the banned Oct. 1 independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 28, 2017. The words on the scarf reads, “I am Spanish!”. (Photo: Jon Nazca/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Students fix banners on the wall regarding the referendum in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Thousands of striking university students are marching through Barcelona to protest an intensifying central government crackdown on Sunday’s planned independence referendum in Catalonia. Banners reads in Catalan: “Democracy”. (Photo: Manu Fernandez/AP)

Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

A demonstrator against independence, holds a Spanish flag reading “Civil Guard, the honor is my insignia” during a protest in front of Catalunya Radio headquarters in Barcelona on Sept.27, 2017. Catalonia’s regional police force today warned the Spanish government that a demand from the prosecutor’s office to seal off polling stations and prevent a contested independence referendum could spark civil unrest. (Photo: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A student offers ballots to citizens as she protests in favour of the banned October 1 independence referendum outside the University of Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 28, 2017. (Photo: Jon Nazca/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Firemen react as they hang a huge banner in favour of the banned October 1 independence referendum at the Catalonia’s History Museum in Barcelona, Spain Sept. 28, 2017. (Photo: Jon Nazca/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Students demonstrate against the position of the Spanish government to ban the Self-determination referendum of Catalonia during a university students strike on Sept. 28, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. The Catalan goverment is keeping with its plan to hold a referendum, due to take place on October 1, which has been deemed illegal by the Spanish government in Madrid. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Two man dressed in donkey masks and wrapped with an “estelada” or pro independence flag rest during a protest in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (Photo: Manu Fernandez/AP)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A member of a castelle holds a placard reading in Catalan “We want to vote”, as she crowned the human tower in Sant Jaume square in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. (Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Pro-independence supporters take part in a rally in support for the Catalonia’s secession referendum, in Bilbao, northern Spain, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo: Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Catalan nationalists and Spanish pro-unity demonstrators protest in Barcelona

Protesters against a banned referendum on independence in Catalonia hold flares during a demonstration in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 22, 2017. (Photo: Susana Vera/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

People hold flowers during a protest near the Economy headquarters of Catalonia’s regional government in Barcelona on Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Pro-referendum demonstrators protest as Spanish National Police officers leave during a demonstration near the Economy headquarters of Catalonia’s regional government in Barcelona on Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Pro-referendum protestors gather in front of the Economy headquarters of Catalonia’s regional government during a police search in Barcelona on Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A crowd of protesters paste posters reading “Spain and Euro, Anti-democratic Fraud” to the Catalan region’s economy ministry building after junior economy minister Josep Maria Jove was arrested by Spanish police during a raid on several government offices, in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Protestors wave Esteladas (Catalan separatist flags) at a line of Spanish national police who surrounded the leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party headquarters in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Pro-independence demonstrators try to stop the car carrying Xavier Puig, a senior at the Department of External Affairs, Institutional Relations and Transparency of the Catalan Government office, after he was arrested by Guardia Civil officers in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A protestor holds up a sign in front of a Catalan police outside the Catalan region’s foreign affairs ministry building during a raid by Spanish police on government offices, in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Susana Vera/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Demonstrators react as they try to stop the car carrying Xavier Puig, a senior at the Department of External Affairs, Institutional Relations and Transparency of the Catalan Government office, after he was arrested by Guardia Civil officers in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A protestor holds up a placard outside the Catalan region’s economy ministry building during a raid by Spanish police on several government offices, in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Catalan police officers try to remove pro-independence demonstrators as they block a vehicle of the Guardia Civil outside the headquarters of the region’s department of External Affairs in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A crowd of protesters lift up a ballot box outside the Catalan region’s economy ministry building after junior economy minister Josep Maria Jove was arrested by Spanish police during a raid on several government offices, in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A protestor holds up an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) outside a Unipost office which was raided in search of material for the proposed October 1 referendum, in Terrassa, Spain, Sept. 19, 2017. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Protestors hold Esteladas (Catalan separatist flags) during a rally in favour of a planned referendum on the independence of Catalonia in Madrid, Spain, Sept. 17, 2017. (Photo:Sergio Perez/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

Catalan police officers remove a protestor from the street outside a Unipost office which was raided in search of material for the proposed October 1 referendum, in Terrassa, Spain, Sept. 19, 2017. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters)

Catalan nationalists protest in Barcelona

A man raises up a scarf (reads Catalonia) during the Catalans mayors protest in Barcelona, Spain Sept. 16, 2017. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters)

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