Lawmakers in Catalonia might ban bullfighting in a razor-close vote, rejecting a pillar of traditional Spain in a region with its own language and culture and an acute sense of being a country within a country.
If a proposed ban is approved in Wednesday's local legislature vote, the wealthy northeast coastal region centered around Barcelona would become the first in mainland Spain to outlaw the deadly ballet of sword-wielding matador and charging half-ton beast. The practical effect of such a move would be limited: Catalonia has only one functioning bullring, in Barcelona, another disused one is being turned into a shopping mall and it stages 15 fights a year which are rarely sold out, out of a nationwide total of roughly 1,000 bouts per season.
Still, bullfighting buffs and Spanish conservatives are taking the drama very seriously. They see a stinging anti-Spanish rebuke in a grassroots, anti-bullfighting drive that started last year and will culminate in the vote in the 135-seat Catalan Parliament. The final result will depend on the region's two dominant parties, a center-right Catalan nationalist coalition called Convergence and Union, and the local branch of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialists.
Both are allowing their members to vote as they please rather than force them to toe the party line, a break with tradition showing how sensitive the issue is.
The first Spanish region to outlaw bullfighting was the Canary Islands, in 1991. But fights were never that popular there anyway and when the ban took effect there had not been one for seven years. So Catalonia's is a much more potent case, even if bullfighting is not as popular there as it is in Madrid or Andalusia down south. Josep Rull, a Convergence and Union spokesman, predicted a close vote and victory for the anti-bullfighting camp. Bullfighting would thus vanish from Catalonia starting in 2012.
Along with the Basque region, Catalonia has the most self-rule among Spain's semiautonomous regions, running its own police force and having a say over a wide range of other issues. But many Catalans are angry because Spain's highest court recently trimmed the region's self-rule charter.
However, Rull denied the drive to do away with bullfighting is anti-Spanish, insisting it is simply a case of a society whose values have evolved and likening Catalonia's possible move to Britain outlawing fox hunting with hounds in 2004. "Was that an exercise in rejecting English, British and Scottish roots? No," Rull said from Barcelona.
Bullfighting may have been popular in Catalonia decades ago _ Barcelona once boasted three bullrings but tastes have changed and for most Catalans today, Rull said, "the suffering and death of a living being cannot be turned into a public spectacle." Josefina Elias, president of a Barcelona-based polling firm called Instituto Opina, said Catalan nationalism plays at least a part in the campaign to ban bullfighting, but predicted that the 'fiesta nacional' will ultimately survive the vote for economic reasons.
She said Catalans are pragmatic and business-minded and will not want to lose revenue from tourists drawn to take in a bullfight when they visit Spain's most popular vacation region, even if some leave the ring appalled by the blood and gore. The hospitality industry has pressured lawmakers to reject the ban.
"In this debate, I think the economic factor will prevail," Elias said.
For many Spanish conservatives and bullfighting aficionados, the proposed ban is an outright slap in the face to the rest of Spain. The Catalan Socialists originally planned to vote en masse in favor of preserving bullfights, but changed their mind last week, partly out of anger over the court ruling cutting back the self-rule charter, the pro-bullfighting newspaper El Mundo said Tuesday.
"The idea is not to protect animals from mistreatment," it said in an editorial, "but rather to keep severing cultural links that can identify Catalonia with the rest of Spain."