Sunday's regional elections could trigger a battle for independence from Spain. By Alasdair Fotheringham in Girona
Two years ago in Girona, a well-to-do town in Spain's autonomous region of Catalonia, Merc Escara hung a pro-independence flag from her balcony window. The administrator for her apartment building promptly asked her to remove it.
Visit Girona today, and a similar request would be met with total derision. Throughout the town centre, about one property in three displays at least one, if not several, estelada flags that symbolise the Catalan separatist movement.
Although there are widespread disagreements about the cause, no one in Catalonia can deny that the pro-independence movement in Spain's richest region is on the rise - signified by the pro- nationalist march on 11 September that brought well over a million people on to the streets of the Catalan capital, Barcelona.
Seizing on the political traction for the separatist movement, the conservative Convergence and Union (CiU) party that governs Catalonia has brought regional elections forward by two years to Sunday. They are likely to strengthen the position of the nationalists, reinforcing the mandate of Catalonia's regional leader, Artur Ms, to press ahead with a referendum on independence despite the ban on secession that is written in the Spanish constitution. However, if Sunday's vote triggers this move, Spain's economic woes will be compacted by a fresh constitutional crisis.
The mere suggestion of the referendum has set Catalonia's ruling coalition on a collision-course with Spain's main central political parties, and created a political headache in the most turbulent of economic times for the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and his ruling centre-right Partido Popular (PP) government.
"These elections are not just the most important of our lives, they're the most important of the last three centuries," Carles Puigdemont, Girona's mayor and President of the Assembly of Municipalities for Independence, told The Independent. His reference to the War of Spanish Succession in the early 18th century, in which Catalonia's fighters were crushed by those of Spain and France, is still a source of ire for Catalans. "As Catalans this is a historic responsibility," he says.
Catalonia's history, language and culture have long been a key part of separatist sentiment, but money is at the heart of this new fervour.
Mr Puigdemont argues that although Catalonia produces 20 per cent of Spain's GDP, it does not receive the appropriate level of investment from Madrid. He complains that Catalonia "only receives nine per cent of investment in transport infrastructure", laments "the failure to turn the N-2, the busiest A-road in Spain that runs through here, into a motorway", and objects to the fact that, in a country with one of the most extensive high speed train networks, his region's railways "still need a change of gauge at the nearby frontier with France".
But all of this has to be endured, he says, against a backdrop of "permanent, endemic Catalanophobia in [Spanish] political circles".
"It's over..." he says. "We've supported Madrid governments on the left, on the right... but we've decided to try to have our own state. We owe it to our children, so that in the future they can work in all kinds of jobs, not just service industries like tourism. Madrid doesn't understand that - it isn't capable - but we do."
Mr Puigdemont talks tough, but hardline nationalists are less convinced that his party, the CiU, which traditionally took a more long-term, softly-softly approach to independence, has any genuine interest in a separate Catalonia. The party's leader, Artur Ms, has particularly come under fire for referring to Spain as "our country".
"Artur Ms is too ambiguous. He talks about Catalonia forming its own state [but] he never says the word 'independence'," says Joan Vericata, a former CiU voter who now supports the small Solitaritat per la Independencia (SI) political coalition. …