CATALAN regional government president Artur Mas has officially called early elections for 27 September, a poll he intends to use as a referendum on independence from Spain.
President Mas signed the election bill on Monday saying Spain’s decision not to allow the region to hold an independence referendum last year left it with no choice but to call elections and use them as a test of public opinion.
His ruling Convergence party and the region’s second party, the Republican Left of Catalonia, are running joint candidates and say they will unilaterally leave Spain if they obtain a majority.
Spain has ruled out any possibility of secession.
The vote to elect a parliament in the wealthy northeastern region, a year earlier than necessary, ratchets up pressure on Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who has ruled out Catalan independence. It also forces the issue to the forefront of the national campaigns.
“We all know these elections will be very different,” Mr Mas said in a television address, after signing a decree to dissolve parliament and setting the long-flagged election in motion.
Separatist leaders have said in recent weeks that a victory for them in the election would launch a “roadmap” to Catalan independence within 18 months, although they have not said how they would overcome the staunch opposition from Madrid.
Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, told a news conference earlier on Monday that the government could legally challenge the decision to call the polls if Mr Mas did not respect the law.
It has blocked attempts to hold a referendum on independence in the courts before.
Catalan separatist campaigners defied Madrid and staged a symbolic vote on independence last November, but the outcome was mixed.
About 80 per cent of the 2.2 million people who voted backed secession, but the turnout was little more than 40 per cent.
Polls suggest that some of the steam may have come out of the pro-independence campaign since then, with voters focussing on social and economic issues as the country emerges from recession.
The main Catalan parties supporting a split from Spain, including Mas’s centre-right Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya (CDC), have agreed to present a joint list of candidates to avoid splintering the pro-independence vote.
Election campaigning will start on the highly charged date of September 11, Catalonia’s national day.
Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of Barcelona last September 11, calling for the right to vote on a potential split from Spain – a cause supported by a majority in the region, even those who oppose independence.
Their fervour was boosted by a Scottish referendum on independence from Britain, even though it ended in a “No” vote.
Recent opinion polls show a slim majority of Catalan voters oppose independence.
Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona, accounts for about one-fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product.