BARCELONA (Reuters) - The Catalan parliament dealt the death blow to bullfighting in the region on Wednesday, outlawing the centuries-old spectacle for the first time on mainland Spain.
The result of 68 in favour, 55 against the ban was expected, after Catalonia's parliament in December accepted a petition by citizens to stop bullfighting, as activists concerned about animal cruelty battled devotees of the Spanish tradition.
In the debate, some lawmakers cited the declining popularity of bullfighting in Spain, where fewer people go each year to the arena to watch toreros in their elaborate "suits of lights" engage enraged bulls at close range with red capes and swords.
"There are some traditions that can't remain frozen in time as society changes. We don't have to ban everything, but the most degrading things should be banned," said Josep Rull, member of parliament for the Catalonian nationalist party (CiU).
Lawmakers denied the debate's outcome reflected separatist aspirations, but many Spaniards saw the vote as having more to do with Catalonia's drive to reduce Madrid's political influence over their region than with the protection of animals.
Nine lawmakers abstained from voting in the debate in which animal activists concerned about the bull's suffering argued against those who revere bullfighting, celebrated by U.S. Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway in the book "Death in the Afternoon."
Animal rights activists have pledged to spread the ban from the autonomy-minded region throughout the rest of the country, which would be difficult because some regions have passed laws protecting bullfighting as their heritage.
Anti-bullfighting groups gathered signatures from 180,000 Catalans, which forced parliament to vote on the tradition which dates back to 711, when the first bullfight took place in celebration for the crowning of King Alfonso VIII.
"They have heard the outcry of a society that is reinventing its traditions," said Anna Mula, of the group Prou! (Enough!).
Before the vote, animal rights activists, one drenched in red paint, and bullfighting aficionados gathered outside parliament to hear the result.
Highly ritualised bullfighting, in which the matador and his entourage use capes, lances and darts to subdue the bull which is killed at close quarters with a sword, was made illegal in Spain's Canary islands in 1991.
"DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON"
For fans, who shout "Ole" in chorus at the bullring to appreciate a daring or stylish move, the showdown is a moving display of fear and courage.
"It's not a cruel show. Completely the opposite. It's a show that creates art: where you get feelings and a fight between a bull and person, where the person or the bull can lose their life," bullfighter Serafin Marin told Reuters.
In Spanish newspapers, bullfighting reviews are found not in the sports pages, but in the arts and culture sections.
The drama of the bullring also inspired painter Pablo Picasso and poet Federico Garcia Lorca. But anti-bullfighting activists point out that it has disturbed many other artists, from Mark Twain to Hans Christian Andersen.
Under the ban, which would come into effect in 2012, the last active bullring in Catalonia's capital, Barcelona, would shut down, as would the remaining few elsewhere in the region.
Some lawmakers cited Spain's ongoing economic crisis -- the country is just emerging from a deep recession -- as a reason to keep bullfighting alive.
A report by an industry group that lobbied against the ban said 100 million euros of tickets to bullfights are sold annually in France and Spain, and projected rising unemployment benefit payouts for Catalonia's government when bullrings shut.
Some lawmakers in France -- where bullfights are held in the south -- are pushing for a nationwide ban.
"Banning bullfighting at a time of economic crisis is madness," said Rafael Luna, member of parliament for the conservative Popular Party, during the debate.
The bullfighting industry includes manufacturing of the elaborate suits as well as specialized breeding of bulls, which can cost up to 10,000 euros (8,300 pounds) apiece.
"It's an attack on liberty, on a private economic activity. People are free to go or not go to the bullring," said Fernando Masedo, president of the International Federation of Bullfighting Schools, where initiates learn to face down bulls.
Although Spaniards are still passionate about the bullring and its matadors, today's heroes now include players on the World-Cup-winning soccer team, three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador and tennis world number one Rafa Nadal.