Catalans vote in 'historic' polls over independence
BARCELONA - Agence France-Presse
AFP photoCatalans voted Sept. 27 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.
Regional president Artur Mas has cast the 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 regional parliament, even without a majority of votes.
Spain's central government brands secession illegal and has called for 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 broke away from Spain.
"The future of Catalonia is at stake," said Catalan daily La Vanguardia.
Centre-left national El Pais declared the ballots "historic".
Polling stations opened under cloudy skies in Barcelona, where red- and yellow-striped Catalan flags hung from buildings.
More than 5.5 million of Catalonia's 7.5 million inhabitants were eligible to vote at nearly 2,700 polling stations across the region.
With its own language and cultural traditions, Catalonia has seen numerous bids for greater autonomy over the past century and secessionist demands have surged in the recent years of 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 blocked Mas's efforts to hold a straight referendum so the Catalan leader has framed Sunday's election for the regional parliament as an indirect vote on secession.
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.
Past polls have indicated Catalans favour a referendum but are fairly evenly divided over independence.
"We want to be a free country so we can decide for ourselves and not have to wait for the Spanish state to tell us what to do," said one voter, 21-year-old student David Jovany, ahead of Sunday's vote.
But Maria Garcia, a 43-year-old computer specialist, said she did not want to break away.
"We are going through a time of confrontation," she said. "The rest of Spain thinks we are all nationalists, but it is not true."
Polls ahead of Sunday's vote showed the conservative Mas and his left-wing allies in the pro-independence list "Together For Yes" could win a majority of the 135 seats in parliament and nearly half the votes overall.
But they will likely need to strike an accord with CUP, an anti-capitalist citizens' movement which polls show could act as kingmaker -- a sign of Spain's new political dynamic after the economic crisis.
Voting stations opened at 0700 GMT and were due to close at 1800 GMT.