Madrid: Bullfighting in Spain could suffer its biggest setback to date on Wednesday when the Catalonia Parliament votes whether to ban the practice in the separatist-minded northeastern region.
The vote comes after animal rights activists campaigning under the platform "Prou!", or "Enough!" in the Catalan language, collected 180,000 signatures in Catalonia on a petition calling for the assembly to decide on a motion on the ban.
The most recent indications are that a majority of the 135 regional lawmakers are in favour of the motion, which tightens Catalonia`s animal protection law to remove an exception for bullfights from a ban on the killing or mistreating animals in shows.
If approved, Catalonia -- home to Spain`s second-largest city, Barcelona -- would become the first region in the country outside of the Canary Islands to ban bullfighting, and others could follow its example.
While the arguments for banning bullfighting have focused on animal rights, many in the rest of Spain believe the push in Catalonia is based largely on a desire among some Catalans to emphasise their distinct identity.
In an editorial published Tuesday, centre-right daily newspaper El Mundo wrote that the issue had become political in a region where the "idea is to ban everything that is Spanish".
The vote comes one month after Spain`s Constitutional Court struck down several articles of Catalonia`s "statute of autonomy", which expanded the already significant powers of self-rule of the region with its own language and distinct culture.
Conservative media commentators have suggested that Catalan lawmakers may seek their revenge by banning bullfighting.
The Catalan public works minister and regional government spokesman, Joaquim Nadal, said he was confident the issue would not be used as "an element of confrontation" between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.
"Bulls are bulls and politics is politics," he told reporters in Barcelona.
Jose Montilla, the president of the Catalan regional government, has given his 37 socialist lawmakers in the assembly the freedom to vote according to their consciences.
A vote in block by the Catalan socialists, which had initially been expected, would have guaranteed a defeat for the motion to ban bullfighting.
Opponents of bullfighting, who are more numerous in Catalonia than the rest of Spain, point out that its appeal is declining quickly in the region even though the last active bullring in Barcelona still regularly stages fights.
They have counted on the strong support of international animal rights activists in their drive to get the motion passed.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals delivered to each member of the Catalan parliament Monday a petition backing the bullfight ban that was signed by 140,000 people from around the world.
"Local members of parliament have the chance to make a bold statement about the region’s modern attitude by refusing to allow the continuance of this outdated and cruel practice," said group president Mike Baker.
The vote comes as the bullfighting sector -- which generates about 40,000 jobs -- feels the effects of Spain`s economic downturn, with many smaller municipalities dropping bullfights from their annual "fiestas" to save money.
Top bullfighter Jose Tomas said banning bullfighting in Catalonia would be "a terrible loss".
"To think they can steal a part of all you admire, that is so important to your life, your profession, it`s hard," he said in an interview published over the weekend in daily newspaper La Razon.