Catalonia Holds Vote That Could Reshape Spain

Catalonia Holds Vote That Could Reshape Spain

Voters have been casting their ballots in Spain's wealthy region of Catalonia for an election that could determine whether it eventually breaks away from the rest of the country.

The region must choose a new assembly, after a campaign dominated by the issue of independence from Spain and financial woes.

Opinion polls show that most voters will cast ballots for pro-independence parties, with Catalan President Artur Mas expected to win re-election.

Mr Mas has advocated independence despite strong resistance from Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has been fighting deep recession in his country.

"I hope to be the last president of a Catalonia that the Spanish state is trying to destroy," Mr Mas told a recent campaign rally for his conservative Convergence and Union Party.

"The next one will not depend on the Spanish state and they will no longer be able to destroy it," he told supporters, who chanted back to him: "Independence! Independence!"

If the vote today goes his way, he has promised to call a referendum on statehood within four years.

Like the Basque Country, Catalonia - a northeastern region of 7.5 million people - has its own language and sees itself as different from the rest of Spain.

Until recently, Catalans were content just pushing for greater autonomy, and stopped short of seeking independence.

But Spain's economic woes, including a 25% unemployment rate, and tough austerity measures imposed by Madrid have added to the Catalans' discontent and persuaded many they would be better off on their own.

Catalonia has a significant weight in Spain's economy, accounting for one-fifth of its total output, and a greater share of its exports.

It features one of the world's greatest football teams, FC Barcelona, which contributes many players to Spain's World Cup winning national squad.

However, the region has also suffered from Europe's financial crisis and has a 44bn euro debt.

In the voting for the regional assembly, called by Mr Mas two years ahead of schedule, 135 seats are up for grabs, with Mr Mas' alliance expected to take 60-64, according to recent surveys.

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