The leader of Spain's wealthy Catalonia region has signed a decree calling early parliamentary elections for September. The elections have been portrayed as a proxy vote on independence.
Catalan President Artur Mas on Monday formally called the polls to elect a new regional parliament for September 27, a year earlier than necessary.
"We all know these elections will be very different," Mas said in a televised address after signing the decree to dissolve the region's parliament and set the election process in motion.
Separatist leaders have said that if they won in the election it would pave the way towards independence for Catalonia in 18 months. The separatist movement has gained momentum in recent years, fueled by Spain's economic difficulties and Scotland's 2014 referendum. However, it wasn't clear how the pro-independence movement would overcome the staunch opposition from Madrid and the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Spain's central government rejects the idea that Catalan elections should be seen as a referendum on independence. Earlier Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said the vote can only be about choosing a new Catalan parliament, under the constitution.
"In a regional election one chooses lawmakers for the regional parliament, who in turn elect a president of the region. This is what citizens are deciding with this vote and nothing else," she told reporters.
Catalan separatist campaigners defied Madrid and held a symbolic vote on independence last November. While about 80 percent chose independence, voter turnout was little more than 40 percent. Spanish state prosecutors filed charges against referendum leaders including Mas. Polls since have suggested that the separatist campaign has been losing steam, with citizens more concerned about social and economic issues.
This time around, the main Catalan parties in favor of splitting from Spain have agreed to present a united front to avoid dividing the pro-independence vote.
The Spanish general election is also expected to take place in late November.
se/cmk (AFP, Reuters)