TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) - Political parties opposing a split by Catalonia from Spain had a small lead in an opinion poll published on Sunday, the first since Madrid called a regional election to try to resolve the country's worst political crisis in four decades.
Polls and recent elections have shown that about half the electorate in the wealthy northeastern region, which is already autonomous, oppose secession from Spain, but a vocal independence movement has brought the current crisis to a head.
Spain's central government called an election for Dec. 21 on Friday after sacking Catalonia's president Carles Puigdemont, dissolving its parliament and dismissing its government. That followed the assembly's unilateral declaration of independence in a vote boycotted by three national parties.
The regional government claimed it had a mandate to push ahead with independence following an unofficial referendum on Oct. 1 which was ruled illegal under Spanish law and mostly boycotted by unionists.
Waving thousands of Spanish flags and singing "Viva España", protesters on Sunday turned out in the largest display of support for a united Spain since the beginning of the crisis -- underlining the depth of division in Catalonia itself.
"I'm here to defend Spanish unity and the law," said Alfonso Machado, 55, a salesman standing with a little girl with Spanish flags in her hair.
"Knowing that in the end there won't be independence, I feel sorry for all the people tricked into thinking there could be and the divisions they've driven through Catalan society."
The poll of 1,000 people by Sigma Dos for newspaper El Mundo, which opposes independence, showed anti-independence parties winning 43.4 percent support and pro-independence parties 42.5 percent.
The survey was taken from Monday to Thursday, just as the central government prepared to take control of Catalonia.
Madrid said on Saturday that secessionist politicians, including Puigdemont, were free to take part in the Dec. 21 election. The hardline CUP has been unclear if it would.
The deposed Catalan government would soon have to make difficult decisions, Puigdemont's former deputy Oriol Junqueras said on Sunday in an editorial in the Catalan online newspaper El Punt Avui. He stopped short of saying they would take part in the election.
"We need a shared strategy ... it's important to weave solid alliances with those who are willing to build a state that serves its citizens," he said, possibly alluding to a rumored alliance between his own ERC party and the Catalonia arm of the anti-austerity Podemos party.
Such an alliance could put the independence movement in difficult position as it would mean joining forces with parties that reject Madrid's hard line but do not support secession.
With weeks still to go before the election, the poll showed the CUP, kingmaker for the pro-secessionists in the dismissed 135-seat parliament, would win seven seats, down from a current 10.
The pro-independence coalition Junts pel Si, which held 62 seats previously, was split into parties PDeCat and ERC for the poll as they are unlikely to run on a single platform.
The two parties would win between 54 and 58 seats in total, the poll showed, Reuters reported.
In a speech at Sunday's unity rally, former European Parliament president Josep Borrell called for voters to turn out en masse in December to ensure independence supporters lose their stranglehold on the regional parliament.
"Maybe we're here because many of us during elections didn't go and vote. Now we have a golden opportunity. This time, nobody should stay at home," Borrell said to cheering crowds.