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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.

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Madrid has traditionally said that simplifying the state's financial model by excluding overall costs such as defense only creates a distorted image of how taxation and spending are distributed.

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A rising tide of Catalan separatist sentiment was spurred when Rajoy failed to agree to Mas' proposals to lighten Catalonia's tax load and 1.5 million people turned out for the largest nationalist rally since the 1970s in Barcelona on September 11.

These growing economic concerns have combined with a long-standing nationalist streak in Catalonia, which has its own language and cultural traditions that were harshly repressed by the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco from the end of Spain's Civil War in 1939 to Franco's death in 1975.

Soccer divide

One of the most potent symbols of the divisions distancing Catalonia and the country's capital city can be seen in the bitter rivalry between the Barcelona and Real Madrid soccer clubs.

In recent years, at least two grassroots groups have held unofficial referendums on independence in towns throughout the region, while some small villages have gone to the extreme of declaring themselves "free Catalan territories."

Catalans are viewed by most Spaniards as thrifty, hardworking people, and most — not least many Catalans — have been shocked by how Catalonia's regional debt has swelled to €42 billion ($54.4 billion) of the staggering €140 billion debt ascribed to all of Spain's regional governments.

The economic crisis has highlighted the high cost of running Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions alongside a central government.

The Catalan government has had to ask for a €5 billion ($6.5 million) bailout from Spain like other indebted regions.

Catalan: We give more than receive

Mas' government counters that each year it contributes €16 billion ($21 billion) more than it gets back from Spain. It also complains that important infrastructure projects needed to revive Spain's sick economy are being left unfunded.

Even so, many people feel they are both Catalan and Spanish, and are reticent of the idea of trying to divide the country.

"We are not separatists, we want to remain part of Spain," said retired industrial designer Francisco Palau, 69, who emerged from a polling station alongside his wife. "We defend current plurality," he said, adding that setting up a new state and government "would be very expensive."

Just over 5.2 million people are eligible to vote for candidates to fill the 135-seat Catalan parliament that sits in Barcelona.

* Harold Heckle reported from Madrid.

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