Thousands of activists crowded onto the streets of downtown Barcelona to defend their elected officials after Spanish police cracked down on plans for an illegal referendum on independence on October 1.

Protesters gathered outside the offices of the regional finance department as officers from Spain's Civil Guard searched the premises for evidence that officials have helped to organise the vote.

The crowd chanted that the raid was a return to the authoritarian tactics of dictator Francisco Franco and set up improvised security checks to control access to the building. Some organisers on the barrier said the plan was to prevent the police from leaving the building.

"We are here to stop the forces of Spanish repression from pushing our elected representatives around," said Jordi Adroer, a 58-year-old economist who spent all day at the demonstration. "I have been waiting all my life to gain freedom, and I am willing to wait as long as it takes."

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With Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy facing Spain's biggest constitutional crisis in more than three decades, the future of Catalonia will be shaped by the power struggle between the forces of the state and the protesters on the streets.

No analysts at this stage are projecting that Spain's biggest economic region has much chance of actually winning independence. Still, the rift between Barcelona and Madrid and, indeed, between the pro- and anti-independence factions within Catalan society, may leave a permanent scar on the nation's psyche and poses a threat to political leaders from both camps.

"Today marks a new level of escalation in the conflict," said Angel Talavera, an economist at Oxford Economics in London. "The relationship is completely destroyed. I don't see any way they can really move forward without a change of government on both sides."

The political order that steered Spain through a three-decade boom after its return to democracy has been blown apart in recent years by a historic economic crisis and revelations of systemic corruption among the political elites in both Madrid and Barcelona. That fragmented parliament in Madrid, where Rajoy lacks a majority, has left the Prime Minister exposed as he tries to rein in the separatists.

A crowd of protesters gather outside the Catalan region's economy ministry building in Barcelona, Spain. Photo / AP
A crowd of protesters gather outside the Catalan region's economy ministry building in Barcelona, Spain. Photo / AP

"The Government is doing what it has to do," Rajoy told MPs today. "And we will keep doing that until the very end." Catalan separatist lawmakers walked out of the chamber in response to his comments.

Yesterday, the parliament voted against a motion to support Rajoy's efforts to enforce the rule of law with the left-wing populists Podemos demanding the Prime Minister let the Catalans vote on their future and the Socialists divided. With no clear consensus on how he should be dealing with the issue, Rajoy's attempts to calibrate his response - to block the vote without driving moderates into the separatist camp - are beginning to unravel.

As officers from the Civil Guard went through Catalan government files, the protesters outside unveiled a banner across the plaza that read, in English, "Welcome to the Catalan Republic." Jordi Sanchez, leader of pro-independence civic movement the Catalan National Assembly, was greeted with raucous cheers.

"The streets will always be ours," the protesters chanted.

El Correo, a Barcelona-based newspaper, reported that the central government plans to have more than 16,000 extra police in Catalonia by October 1.

- Bloomberg