With independence flags fluttering from balconies, Catalans voted yesterday 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’ ruling nationalist party, Convergence and Union, but not the absolute majority he is fighting for.
The prospect of a breakup of Spain sparked an open conflict with Madrid and overwhelmed debate about the region’s sky-high public debt, savage spending cuts, soaring 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.
However, an independent Catalonia seems far off.
Spanish 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 Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco.
“This could be an historic moment,” 27-year-old sociologist Andreu Camprubi said, 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 polarization.”
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’ alliance could take between 60 and 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 a referendum were to be held on “self-determination,” Catalans would vote in favor by 46 percent to 42 percent, according to a survey in leading daily El Pais.