Catalans vote in crucial poll over independence
Catalans voted Sunday in an election seen as crucial for Spain's future, with opinion polls pointing to a win by separatists who vow to declare the region independent by 2017.
The drive to break the rich northeastern region away from Spain and create a new state in Europe has prompted a fierce standoff with the Spanish government.
After voting in central Barcelona, the region's president Artur Mas hailed the election as "a great victory for democracy" regardless of who might win.
After the Spanish government blocked him from holding a straight referendum, Mas portrayed Sunday's vote for the regional parliament as a chance for "freedom" from rule by Madrid.
"We have had to overcome many obstacles from the state institutions," he said Sunday.
"But at last the ballot boxes are in place and there will be a plebiscite, politically speaking, on the future of Catalonia."
His separatist alliance has vowed to declare independence by 2017 if it secures a majority in the parliament, even without a majority of votes.
Centre-left national newspaper El Pais declared the election "historic".
Spain's central government brands secession illegal and wants the country to stay united as the eurozone's fourth-biggest economy recovers from recession.
Polls opened at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) and regional officials said turnout was 35 percent by 1:30 pm -- nearly six percent higher than in the last regional election in 2012.
Campaigning against independence, the national ruling Popular Party's candidate Xavier Garcia Albiol said it looked like a "historic turnout" and urged Catalans to vote "regardless of their opinion".
Campaigning has been tense and emotional but no incidents were reported.
- Football and politics -
Personalities such as Barcelona football club's beloved former coach Pep Guardiola and current defender Gerard Pique support independence.
Barca's current coach Luis Enrique -- not a Catalan native -- said on Twitter that he had voted, but did not say who for.
"Today Catalonia decides," he wrote. "Long live Catalonia!"
Past polls have indicated Catalans favour a referendum but are evenly divided over independence.
"Without independence, nothing will change. This is a chance to turn everything around," said Alex Donate, 29, who voted for Mas's list.
"I love Spain, but I think independence will be good for us."
Pensioner Mireia Galobart, 70, said she was worried however about the risks of secession.
"Now is not the time to separate," she said, leaning on a cane.
The Spanish government says Catalonia risks plunging out of the eurozone and EU and into financial chaos.
"If they stop paying our pensions that will affect me," said Galobart.
- Following Scotland, Quebec -
With its own language and cultural traditions, Catalonia has seen numerous bids for greater autonomy over the past century. Secessionist demands have surged in the recent economic crisis.
Nationalists complain they get less back from Madrid than it takes in taxes.
Mas wants Catalonia to follow Scotland and Quebec in Canada by holding a vote on independence -- though in both those cases most voters chose not to break away.
Madrid has garnered support from US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who have defended the unity of Spain.
Opinion polls showed the conservative Mas and his left-wing allies in the list "Together For Yes" could win a majority out of the 135 seats in parliament and nearly half the votes overall.
But they may need to strike an accord with CUP, an anti-capitalist movement which could act as kingmaker.
More than 5.5 million of Catalonia's 7.5 million inhabitants are eligible to vote. Polling stations were due to close at 1800 GMT.
© 2015 AFP