Could Spain split up? Catalonian vote may birth independence bid. (+video)
If voters give Catalonia's leader Artur Mas strong support on Sunday, he has pledged to hold a referendum on independence from financially troubled Spain.
Voters in Catalonia on Sunday are choosing lawmakers for this wealthy Spanish region's parliament amid a threat from the Catalan leader to hold an independence referendum that would test the country's unity.Skip to next paragraph
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The regional government, led by Artur Mas, called early elections as part of a power struggle with the central government run by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy centered on the size of Catalonia's contribution to national coffers.
But what began as a quarrel over money has turned into a test over Spain's territorial integrity.
If voters give Mas strong support on Sunday, he has pledged to hold a referendum asking Catalans if they would prefer to split from Spain at a time of deep financial crisis.
"These are the most decisive and transcendental elections in the history of Catalonia," Mas said after voting in Barcelona. "There is much at stake for all 7 million of us Catalans."
Polls forecast a majority for parties supporting a referendum on independence, a plebiscite that Spain's central government has ridiculed and called "unconstitutional."
Central government's pushback
According to Rajoy, only central government has the constitutional right to call a referendum and then it would almost certainly have to include the whole of Spain.
Mild winter weather and blue skies helped long lines form at many polling stations early Sunday. By 1 p.m. (7 a.m. EST), the Catalan government calculated that voter turnout was higher than in the previous seven elections dating back to 1988.
Rajoy has said that talk of independence is a side issue to the country's real problem, which is to find a way to create employment and address its deficit.
While Rajoy is immersed in combating Spain's worst financial crisis in decades, Mas claims Catalonia is being asked to shoulder too much of the tax burden and that it could do better if it separated and tried to become an independent member state of the European Union.
"Five years ago I was in favor of a federal model with Spain, but now we have seen that is not viable," said Miquel Angel Aragon, a 37-year-old aid worker. "I am in favor of independence."
Large chunk of Spain's economy
Catalonia is responsible for around a fifth of Spain's economic output and many residents feel central government gives back too little in recognition of the region's contribution.
Catalans have said in growing public protests that their industrialized region is being hit harder than most by austerity measures aimed at avoiding a national bailout like those needed by Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Cyprus.