Emotional campaigns end in historic Catalonia polls
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Rival leaders in Catalonia wrapped up emotional campaigns Friday in what they called a "historic" election that nationalists vow will set the region on the road to independence from Spain.
With red and gold Spanish flags in one camp and striped red and gold Catalan ones in the other, separatist leaders vied for votes against supporters of the pro-unity national government at noisy rallies in Barcelona.
Regional president Artur Mas bellowed before a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters of his Together For Yes alliance that the regional election would "lead to freedom" for the rich northeastern region.
"These are the ballots that will lead to prosperity, solidarity, social justice and equal opportunities. They lead to hope and dignity and they lead to freedom," he cried.
"Sunday is a special day for the future of Catalonia. It is a historic day."
Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy meanwhile urged voters to return Catalonia to "normality" after three years of mounting tension over separatist demands.
"There is a majority of Catalan that love their people and that love their land, and because they love it they do not want to see it amputated from Spain and from Europe," he told a crowd of about a thousand supporters.
Independence by 2017
Normally Sunday's ballot would be just about electing members of the regional parliament.
But since the Spanish government has blocked his bid to hold a referendum, Mas has cast this vote as an indirect plebiscite on secession.
The latest opinion polls show the conservative Mas and his left-wing allies could win a majority in the Catalan parliament and nearly half the votes overall.
To do so they will likely need to strike an accord with CUP, an anti-capitalist citizens' movement that has not joined Mas's electoral alliance but is willing to work with him for independence.
The CUP held its own rally Friday night in Badalona, a working class suburb of Barcelona where it recently helped oust Rajoy's Popular Party in a municipal election -- a sign of Spain's new post-crisis political dynamic.
If Mas secures his majority, he has vowed to launch a roadmap towards a declaration of independence by 2017.
Future at stake
With its own distinct language and cultural traditions, Catalonia accounts for a fifth of Spain's economic output. Nationalists want greater control over how their taxes are spent.
Separatist feeling has been fanned by the recent years of economic crisis and by the failure of various attempts to get greater autonomy.
"This is the most important decision of our political lives," said 22-year-old Laura Surell at Mas's rally.
"We have never had the chance to decide whether Catalonia can be independent or not. We want to decide for ourselves."
Insults and threats flew between Barcelona and Madrid this week ahead of the vote.
Spanish officials threatened Catalans would be stripped of their nationality if they broke away.
They warned Catalonia would drop out of the European Union and plunge into financial chaos like Greece.
Mas said Catalonia will leave Spain to pay off the region's debt if Madrid doesn't sit down to talk.
The squabbling took on a emotional tone on Friday.
Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, leader of Rajoy's Popular Party in Catalonia, said Sunday's polls were "the most important elections in the history of Catalonia. At stake is the future of our children and grandchildren".
Mas's leftwing ally in the pro-independence alliance, Oriol Junqueras of the ERC party, told the secessionist rally: "We are a people who have got to the gates of freedom. We will never surrender.
"I promised my grandfather that one day we would manage it, and that day has come."