BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – The leader of Spain's wealthy Catalonia region on Tuesday called off an independence vote but said an unofficial poll will take place next month to gauge secessionist sentiment.
Artur Mas was forced to cancel the Nov. 9 referendum and replace it with a symbolic one on the same day after Spain's government challenged the referendum in the country's Constitutional Court, which suspended the vote while it deliberates.
Separatists in northeastern Catalonia, which has 7.5 million people, have been trying for several years to hold a breakaway vote from Spain to carve out a new Mediterranean nation.
Secessionist sentiment surged during Spain's economic stagnation and amid discontent at Spain's refusal to give the region more autonomy and fiscal powers.
Polls show most Catalans support holding an independence referendum and around half favor ending centuries-old ties with Spain.
Mas insisted his regional government is not backtracking and still plans an official vote later, saying the symbolic vote will serve as a "preliminary" ballot.
"It means there will be polling stations open, with ballot boxes and ballots," Mas said. "It will depend on the people for a strong enough participation to show that people here want to vote."
The vote questions will be the same, asking residents if they think Catalonia should be a state, and, if so, whether it should be independent.
Madrid's central government has said an independence vote would violate clauses in Spain's constitution specifying that only the national government can call referendums on sovereignty and that all Spaniards must be allowed to vote.
Unlike last month's independence referendum in Scotland, which ended with voters deciding to remain part of the United Kingdom, the vote that Catalonia separatists wanted to hold would have been nonbinding.
Spain's government did not immediately offer a reaction but Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said before Mas spoke that the calling-off of the referendum would be "excellent news."
Regional Catalan politicians who favor staying with Spain said the watered-down Nov. 9 vote will mean nothing.
Alicia Sanchez-Camacho of Spain's ruling Popular Party called the new vote plan "a massive opinion poll." The leader of the Citizens party, Albert Rivera, said Mas should step down or call early regional elections.
"We will not participate in this kind of fictitious referendum," Rivera said.