Catalan nationalism has been steadily rising over the past several years, but the near-certain victory of the conservative People's Party leaves little doubt that more self-governance is a distant dream.
Catalan nationalism has been on a steady rise
Spain's parliamentary electoral campaign officially began on Friday, with the governing Socialists expecting a resounding defeat on November 20 by the conservative People's Party, due to widespread dissatisfaction with high unemployment and a stagnant economy.
Even in the autonomous community of Catalonia in the northeast, where the People's Party is often equated with the heavy-handed Spanish nationalism and brutal Catalan repression of former dictator Francisco Franco, the conservatives are gaining headway.
An October poll by Noxa Consulting and published by the daily newspaper La Vanguardia found that the People's Party, led by 56-year-old Mariano Rajoy, could win 25.5 percent of the votes in Catalonia. That would be the party's best result in the region since the restoration of democracy in 1978.
People's Party leader Mariano Rajoy is set to become Spain's next prime minister
Despite the drop in support for the Socialists in Catalonia - a symbol of the deep frustration with their handling of the economic crisis - it is still expected to win a plurality of the votes in the region. Many voters, like 76-year-old Barcelona resident Antonio Barber de Lopez, see the party as the best option.
"The Socialist government has had the misfortune of being in office when the financial crisis came - not just in Spain, but in all of Europe," he said. "I'm going to vote for the Socialists... The right doesn't do anything but rob."
Catalonia is historically one of Spain's most prosperous regions, but it has not been immune to the economic and financial troubles plaguing the rest of the country. Its current 19.4 percent unemployment rate - a 15-year high - is hardly better than the national average of 21.5 percent.
It also faced a regional budget deficit of nearly 3.9 percent in 2010, forcing the Catalan government to make controversial cuts to health care and education. Regional budget deficits in Catalonia are usually much lower than national deficits.
The financial troubles have led many Catalans to demand more autonomy from Madrid, above all in fiscal matters.
Catalonia currently sends its tax revenues to the central government, which then redistributes it across the rest of Spain. Analysts believe the region gets back between 6 and 10 percent less than what it pays.
Unemploymen in Catalonia, and all of Spain, is at a 15-year high
New fiscal agreement
This unusually high discrepancy has led three-quarters of Catalans to support a new fiscal agreement with the central government - one similar to those of the Basque Country and Navarra, which grant the regional governments the right to negotiate with Madrid on the exchange of tax revenues.
"The central government doesn't answer according to the Catalan needs," Ferran Requejo, political science professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, told Deutsche Welle. "And this reinforces even the secessionist attitude of the average Catalan voter."
With their own distinct language and culture, most Catalans see their homeland as a nation. A July 2010 poll found that 47 percent of the region's voters would support independence from Spain in a referendum - up from 30 percent less than three years prior.
Requejo said the main conservative Catalan nationalist party, Convergence and Union (CiU), which controls the regional parliament, has been championing the issue of autonomy in the election campaign. Polls suggest it is likely to increase its power slightly on the national level after the elections.
Little hope for change
The ruling Socialists are headed for their worst electoral defeat ever
Despite the rise in Catalan nationalism, the region may have little hope for gaining more autonomy in the near future. While CiU has at times played the role of kingmaker in national governments, the People's Party is likely to win an absolute majority in the 350-seat parliament.
"This will put Catalan self-government and Catalan institutions, and also Catalan language and Catalan culture, in a little bit of an uncomfortable situation," said Gaspar Pericay, editor-in-chief of the English-language Catalan News Agency.
With an absolute majority in parliament, the People's Party is unlikely to pay much attention to calls for more autonomy in Catalonia - which points to an impending clash of cultures on a national scale.
"Catalan nationalism [has been] very strong in recent years, but Spanish nationalism is also very strong," Pericay said. "You could say that there is a polarization of the two nationalisms, going in two different directions - or two colliding directions. It depends on how pessimistic you are."
Author: Andrew Bowen, Barcelona
Editor: Nancy Isenson