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This is a special moment. A historic moment - Catalan president Artur Mas; INDY DREAM ALIVE IN SPAIN AS POLLS OPEN.

Byline: Jamie Maxwell | In Barcelona

There was a strong sense of urgency among the 70,000 crowd crammed into Barcelona's Placa Espanya on Friday night.

Standing on a flood-lit stage at the foot of the city's scenic Montjuic hills, Catalan president Artur Mas told them: "This is a special moment for Catalonia. A historic moment."

Mas's speech was punctuated by chants of "visca Catalunya" - Catalonia lives - and "independencia" from the crowd, many of them decked out in the vivid red, yellow and blue of the Catalan independence flag.

Today, Catalonia - a wealthy region of just over seven million in north-eastern Spain - goes to the polls to elect a new devolved parliament and government.

But the people will also decide something more fundamental - the region's constitutional future.

If they emerge as the largest bloc in parliament, nationalists say they will have a mandate to break free from Madrid and create an independent Catalan state.

Catalan journalist Laura Pous Trull said: "It looks as though the nationalists will win the most seats and maybe a majority of votes.

"The Catalan government's preference has always been to have a legal referendum, like the one Scotland had.

"But if Spain refuses to negotiate, it is possible that Catalonia will declare RALLYING CALL Artur Mas independence within 18 months."

Catalan nationalists have fought a gruelling political campaign against Spanish rule, fuelled by a deep frustration with central government.

As the global financial crisis ravaged Spain's economy and unemployment rates spiralled, Catalans, who account for 20 per cent of Spain's GDP, grew resentful of the large fiscal subsidies they send to Madrid.

Last November, nationalists staged a non-binding referendum. Two million Catalans voted with more than 80 per cent backing independence.

A few months later, in an effort to break the deadlock, Catalonia's two main nationalist parties - the centreright Convergencia and centre-left Esquerra Republicana - agreed to fight today's election on a shared platform.

Polls suggest their coalition, called Together for Yes (Junts pel Si), will secure 65 or 66 of the parliament's 135 seats, leaving it just shy of the 68 seat majority needed to declare outright victory.

However, Junts are likely to receive the support of left-wing separatists la CUP, whose projected share of 10 seats should guarantee nationalist control of the parliament.

As the prospect of Catalan independence has intensified, so too has the anti-independence rhetoric of Spanish unionists.

In recent weeks, pro-union politicians have issued stark warnings about what they see as the potentially disastrous effects of separation on Catalonia's economy and international standing.

Observers have likened the onslaught to a more aggressive version of "Project Fear", the negative campaign waged by Better Together in the months leading up to September 18 last year.

Oscar Palau, a correspondent for the Catalan newspaper El Punt Avui, said: "I was in Scotland for the last three weeks of the referendum debate and the British parties at least offered more powers to Scotland.

"But here it is the opposite. The Spanish parties, the bankers, the companies, everyone is campaigning against independence for Catalonia. No one is offering anything positive'."

As well as attacks from within Spain, Catalan separatists face opposition on the global stage.

US president Barack Obama, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister David Cameron have all spoken out against independence for the region.

SNP MEP Alyn Smith, who is in Barcelona this weekend as part of an international parliamentary delegation, thinks Catalans deserve credit for remaining positive.

She said: "There is no doubt that Catalonia is seeing a Project Fear mark two and it is entirely to the credit of the Catalan people that the debate remains positive, up-beat and aspirational.

"I'm here as a friendly outsider, a democrat, a Scot and a European, and I feel very at home."

But not all supporters of Scottish independence share Smith's admiration for Catalonia's nationalists.

Jenny Morrison, a Scottish student who studies in Barcelona and campaigned in favour of a Scottish Yes vote last year, sees Catalan nationalism as a conservative force.

She said: "Right-wing language dominates the Catalan independence movement.

"They say 'Spain robs us', because Catalonia contributes more to Spain than it receives back.

"Also, support for independence here is the reverse of what it is in Scotland. A new Catalan state is likely to be formed through right-wing middle-class support. It is difficult to see the workingclass gaining much in that scenario."

Morrison's view is echoed by Pablo Iglesias, the academic at the head of Spain's insurgent leftwing Podemos party.

He believes Catalans should work with other progressive Spaniards to eject Mariano Rajoy, Spain's right-wing prime minister, from office at the general election later this year.

He said: "It's perfectly understandable for a majority of Catalans to want to ditch Rajoy, but we're saying stay with us and let's all kick out Rajoy together."

Catalan officials remain convinced that, once all the ballots from today's poll have been counted, Madrid will negotiate with the Catalan government and agree either to let Catalonia stage a formal independence referendum or become a separate, sovereign state.

Senior Catalan diplomat Albert Royo said: "Negotiations will take place, I'm sure, with Madrid and with our international partners."

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RALLYING CALL President Artur Mas

PASSIONATE Thousands attend rally in Barcelona on Friday night
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Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Sep 27, 2015
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