Amid Madrid Protests, Catalonia Bumps Up Elections in Independence Push

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Spain's economic powerhouse Catalonia took its first step toward independence and threatened to proceed unilaterally if necessary in a serious challenge to Madrid's already besieged central government, which is struggling with social turmoil and economic uncertainty.

Catalonia's conservative regional leader Artur Mas moved up local elections to Nov. 25 in an effort to secure the political mandate he needs to press the central government to authorize a referendum on independence. But he said that Catalonia could proceed with a referendum even if Madrid didn't authorize one.

"If we can go ahead with a referendum because the government authorizes it, it's better. If not, we should do it anyway," Mr. Mas told the regional parliament Wednesday. "This is about Catalonia being able to exercise its right to self-determination."

The path to independence would take years, not months, and is still fraught with uncertainty, as secession is not legally possible in Spain or the European Union. But moving up the elections and the possibility of a protracted standoff with the central government is threatening to destabilize Spain even further.

The government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called the separatist move a political smokescreen to hide Catalonia's own economic woes, and warned that the move will own compound the country's crisis.

Indeed, while Catalonian politicians debated how to proceed, 64 people were injured and 35 people were detained in Madrid late Tuesday, when protesters tried to approach Parliament in the most violent outburst so far in this crisis. Spain's main opposition party warned the government "was losing control of the country."

Catalonia is one of Spain's most populated regions and its economy is the biggest in Spain, about the size of Ireland's.

But it's also the most indebted region, and its unpopular austerity cuts have been even more drastic than the central government's, especially in healthcare and education. …