Catalonia will hold a symbolic vote on independence on Sunday, in defiance of both court orders and the central government in Madrid.

At the ballot boxes, Catalans aged 16 and older will be asked two questions: whether Catalonia should be a state, and if so, whether it should be an independent state. The straw poll will be organized and staffed by 40,000 trained volunteers, and voters will register on the spot, in the absence of a formal electoral roll.

While the poll’s outcome will be relatively meaningless from a legal perspective, it could send a strong message to Madrid, the seat of Spanish government, which separatists charge doesn’t respect the region’s language or culture, or give it a fair return on the taxes it pays. Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region in northeast Spain, accounts for 19 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

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“Many in Catalonia expect that the process of drafting a new constitution will elicit a political debate from the bottom up that could radically rethink our economic system, so that in the new Catalonia people and their basic needs cannot be treated as commodities.”
—Teresa Forcades

Polls suggest that a majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents want the chance to vote on independence, and about half would vote to break away from Spain. Hundreds of thousands attended pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona earlier this year and more than two million have indicated that they plan to participate in the weekend’s poll. 

Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has repeatedly said any vote would be illegal because Spain’s constitution prevents any region from unilaterally taking decisions that affect all Spaniards. Catalan leaders plan to challenge that stance in court, charging that it violates “the right to participation and the freedom of expression.”

In September, at Rajoy’s behest, Spain’s constitutional court suspended an official planned referendum in Catalonia, halting all preparations for the vote on secession just two days after it was formally called by the Catalan leader, Artur Mas. In response, Mas vowed to push ahead with the vote, albeit in a modified way to get around legal restrictions.

Earlier this week, the high court agreed to hear the central government’s challenge of that watered-down vote, effectively suspending it, too.