Catalan leader seeks big majority for 'freedom'

Anna Cuenca

The leader of Spain's Catalonia region, Artur Mas, vowed on Friday to fight for the 'future of our nation' before a roaring crowd of supporters, ahead of weekend elections that could lead to a popular demand for statehood.

The leader of Spain's Catalonia region vowed Friday to fight for the "future of our nation" in weekend elections that could lead to a popular demand for statehood.

Artur Mas, president of the northeastern region, has promised a referendum on sovereignty for Catalonia if Sunday's vote gives him and other pro-independence parties a mandate to do so.

"Catalonia is one of the oldest nations of Europe and all along history we have had to fight against very high obstacles, very strong setbacks," Mas said, speaking in English to reach a foreign audience as he addressed a rally of supporters in a Barcelona stadium.

"But we have overcome our difficulties, we have fought against armies, we have fought against dictatorships, we have overcome setbacks and now we are alive, our culture is alive, our language is alive, our nation is alive," he said, wrapping up his election campaign.

Latest polls show Mas's nationalist Convergence and Union alliance heading for a win but falling short of the absolute majority he is seeking.

Surveys a week before the vote showed Mas's party taking 60-64 of the 135 seats in parliament, not far from the 62 it now holds, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party and the opposition Socialists fighting for second place.

Nevertheless, pro-referendum parties are widely expected to enjoy a majority in the new parliament.

Supporters brandished Catalan independence flags in the stadium in Barcelona's Olympic zone as Mas brought his campaign to a close before a rest day on Saturday and the regional vote on Sunday.

"We stand for the principle of freedom, we stand for the principle of democracy and we are trying to build up a broad majority, a very big and broad majority next Sunday to build the future of our nation, the future of 7.5 million people," Mas said.

Catalonia accounts for more than one-fifth of Spain's total economic output, a quarter of its exports, as well as boasting one of the world's greatest football teams.

But the region also has a 44 billion euro debt, equal to one-fifth of its output, and was forced to go cap in hand to Madrid this year for more than five billion euros to help make the payments.

A growing sentiment that Spain is the cause of Catalonia's financial troubles is at the heart of the national split.

Mas accuses Madrid of raising far more in Catalan taxes than it returns and estimates the gap, or fiscal deficit, at 16 billion euros ($21 billion) a year, a figure Madrid disputes.

Emboldened by huge protests in Barcelona demanding independence on Catalonia's national day, September 11, Mas demanded greater taxing powers from Rajoy.

When he did not get the concessions he was seeking, he called the snap election.

Rajoy's right-leaning government is determined to thwart any referendum, however, saying it flies in the face of common sense and vowing to wield the Spanish constitution if necessary.

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