MADRID (AP) -- Spain took a key first step Tuesday toward enshrining bullfighting as a key part of the nation's cultural heritage, a move that could roll back a ban on the on the blood-soaked pageants in the northeastern region of Catalonia.
Lawmakers in Parliament accepted a petition from bullfight supporters asking for the special status in a 180-40 vote that included 107 abstentions.
A parliamentary cultural commission will now begin work on proposed legislation over the coming months with expectations that it will go to a vote this year. In theory, a new law giving bullfights the protection would take precedence over regional government laws and could be used to overturn the Catalonia ban that went into effect last year.
The petition, promoted by the Federation of Bullfighting Entities of Catalonia following the ban, received 590,000 signatures of support -- included among them those of now Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Nobel winning author Mario Vargas Llosa.
Popular initiatives need 500,000 signatures to be considered by Parliament.
Bullfighting is no longer as popular in Spain as it was in the past mainly because of the country's crushing economic crisis and changing tastes. Some 2,000 fights are still held yearly although crowd attendances have fallen drastically.
In practice, the Catalonian ban had little impact because bullfighting had declined drastically in popularity.
Even though Catalonia banned bullfights in rings, regional lawmakers passed separate legislation protecting "correbous," small town fiestas in which flaming balls of wax or fireworks are attached to the horns of bulls. Released in town squares or rings, the frightened bulls charge, taunted and teased by boisterous crowds.
But the bullfight ban irked Spaniards, with many seeing it more as an intentional affront by Catalonian nationalists opposed to Spain as a country rather than a move to protect animals.
Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona, prides itself on its distinct identity. Its national government has recently begun moves toward staging a pro-independence referendum, something which Spain says is unconstitutional and will be opposed.
Prior to Catalonia, bullfighting was outlawed in 1991 in the Canary Islands region, but the fights were never popular there.
Alan Clendenning contributed from Madrid.
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