Catalans vote in 'historic' polls over independence
Catalans voted Sunday in an election dubbed crucial for the future of Spain, with 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.
"Catalonia decides its future in Spain," ran Sunday's front-page headline in the centre-right national daily El Mundo.
After the Spanish government blocked him from holding a straight referendum, regional president Artur Mas cast Sunday's vote for the regional parliament as a chance for "freedom" from rule by Madrid.
His separatist alliance has vowed to declare independence by 2017 if it secures a majority in the parliament, even without a majority of votes.
Spain's central government brands secession illegal and wants the country to stay united as the eurozone's fourth-biggest economy recovers from recession.
Madrid says Catalonia would drop out of the European Union and eurozone if it separated from Spain.
- 'Free country' -
Voters turned out under cloudy skies in Barcelona, where red- and yellow-striped Catalan flags hung from buildings.
Past polls have indicated Catalans favour a referendum but are evenly divided over independence.
Personalities such as Barcelona football club's beloved former coach Pep Guardiola and current defender Gerard Pique support independence.
"Without independence, nothing will change. This is a chance to turn everything around," said Alex Donate, 29, who voted for Mas's list in a middle-class district of Barcelona.
Donate said his parents are not from Catalonia originally and will vote "No".
He added: "I love Spain, but I think independence will be good for us."
Pensioner Mireia Galobart, 70, was worried however about the financial and economic stakes of secession.
"Now is not the time to separate," she said, leaning on a cane.
The Spanish government has warned Catalonia risks plunging into financial chaos if it secedes.
"If they stop paying our pensions that will affect me," said Galobart. "I think Catalonia could stay with Spain but have a more autonomous government."
- 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 they pay in taxes.
Mas wants Catalonia to follow the example of 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 in the dispute from leaders such as US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who have defended the unity of Spain.
Wrapping up his campaign in Barcelona, Mas told supporters that the election would "lead to freedom".
"It is a historic day," he bellowed.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy meanwhile urged voters to return Catalonia to "normality" after three years of mounting separatist tension.
"There is a majority of Catalans who love their people and love their land, and do not want to see it amputated from Spain and from Europe," he told supporters.
Polls ahead of Sunday's vote showed the conservative Mas and his left-wing allies in the list "Together For Yes" could win a majority of the 135 seats in parliament and nearly half the votes overall.
But to do so 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 were eligible to vote. Polling stations were due to close at 1800 GMT.
© 2015 AFP