Barcelona (dpa) - Voters in Catalonia were heading for the polls
Sunday in regional elections dominated by the issue of whether the
large and economically powerful north-eastern region should seek
independence from Spain.
Regional Prime Minister Artur Mas had called elections two years ahead of schedule to muster support for a referendum on whether the 7.6 million Catalans, who live in a territory about the size of Belgium, should have "a state of their own."
His Catalan nationalist party, the CiU, refrains from using the word "independence" to avoid alienating moderate voters unwilling to extend the region's self-determination as far as a full separation from Spain.
Mas would like to stage the referendum in four years' time, but the central government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to block his plans through the Constitutional Court.
Opinion polls ahead of Sunday's poll suggested the CiU would fall short of the absolute majority Mas is seeking. However, the CiU and smaller separatist-minded parties are expected to obtain a majority in the regional parliament, allowing Mas to continue pursuing his separatist project.
Rajoy's anti-independence People's Party (PP) is expected to increase its number of seats at the expense of the Socialists, Spain's main opposition party, which advocates a compromise solution by increasing Catalonia's autonomy through a full-fledged federal state.
Ahead of the vote, the government in Madrid asked the judiciary to investigate allegations that Mas had been involved in a corruption scandal at a Barcelona concert hall. The Catalan premier dismissed the allegations as a political plot to tarnish the reputation of the Catalan independence movement.
Catalonia already enjoys wide powers over health and education. It has its own police force, "embassies" abroad, and has made Catalan an official language alongside Spanish.
Separatism has been fanned by Spain's economic crisis. Once known as the country's economic powerhouse, Catalonia is crumbling under a mountain of debt and has been forced to apply for a financial rescue from Madrid.
The region has an unemployment rate of 22.5 per cent, which is still below the national jobless rate of 25 per cent.
Mas argues that Catalonia would have weathered the crisis better if it had not been forced to transfer part of its tax revenue to Spain's poorer regions.
The independence movement has, however, lost steam after the European Union said that an independent Catalonia would initially be left outside the bloc.
Rajoy is also facing a growing independence movement in the nearby Basque region.
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