Catalonia votes in struggle over nationhood
Independence flags fluttering from balconies, Catalans voted Sunday in a snap election that could set their region on a path to divorce from Spain.
Artur Mas, president of the northeastern region, is promising to hold a referendum on self-determination if he wins a mandate.
Opinion polls show the 5.4 million voters giving a strong lead to Mas's ruling nationalist party, Convergence and Union, but not the absolute majority he is fighting for.
The prospect of a break-up of Spain sparked an open conflict with Madrid and overwhelmed debate about the region's sky-high public debt, savage spending cuts, unemployment and recession.
From windows and balconies, some homes unfurled the red-and-yellow striped flag of Catalonia or the pro-independence flag which also incorporates a blue square with a white star.
An independent Catalonia seems far off, however.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's right-leaning government says talk of Catalan independence ignores the constitution, flies in the face of common sense and hurts all Spaniards at a time when they need to be united.
The vote could drive a wedge into the eurozone's fourth largest economy as it fights the deepest economic crisis since the return of democracy after the death in 1975 of General Francisco Franco.
"This could be an historic moment," said 27-year-old sociologist Andreu Camprubi, preparing to vote on a bright autumn day at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University.
"But I think this campaign has been too focused on the Catalonia-Spain polarisation," he said.
Others were angered by the secessionist movement.
"I think these elections are a disgrace because countries are there to unite, not divide," said 65-year-old retiree Josep, who declined to give his last name.
Mas's alliance could take 60 to 64 of the 135 seats in parliament, not far from the 62 it now holds, latest polls showed. Rajoy's Popular Party and the opposition Socialists are fighting for second place.
Nevertheless, pro-referendum parties are expected to enjoy a majority after the vote, called two years early.
If there was a referendum on "self-determination", Catalans would vote in favour by 46 percent to 42 percent, according to a survey in leading daily El Pais.
Catalonia, which traces its origins back more than a millennium, is proud of its language and culture, both of which were suppressed under Franco's rule.
The region was welded to Spain at the nation's symbolic birth when Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, which included Catalonia, married in 1469.
Now the region of 7.5 million people accounts for more than one-fifth of Spain's economic output and a quarter of its exports, and boasts one of the world's finest football teams, Barcelona FC.
But Catalonia also has a 44-billion-euro debt, equal to one-fifth of its output, and was forced to go cap in hand to Madrid this year for more than five billion euros to help make the payments.
A growing sentiment that Spain is the cause of Catalonia's financial troubles is at the heart of the national split.
Mas accuses Madrid of raising far more in Catalan taxes than it returns, and estimates the gap, or fiscal deficit, at 16 billion euros ($21 billion) a year -- a figure Madrid disputes.
Emboldened by huge protests in Barcelona demanding independence on Catalonia's national day, September 11, Mas demanded greater taxing powers from Rajoy.
When the 56-year-old Catalan leader did not get the concessions he was seeking, he called the snap election.
"Even Mas seems to be cautious in calling for the region's full autonomy," said a report by London-based IHS Global Insight analyst Blanka Kolenikova and economist Raj Badiani.
"Such a prospect would indeed open Pandora's Box, including a constitutional crisis in Spain; possible contagion to other peripheral regions with sovereignty aspirations; a blow to Spain's public finances; but also questions over whether a Catalan state, alongside Spain and within the European Union would be viable," it said.
© 2012 AFP