BARCELONA // Spain's Catalans, angry over rising unemployment and persistent recession, were expected to deliver their separatist leader a mandate in yesterday's regional vote to press for secession.
Opinion polls show two thirds of voters will vote for parties that want Catalan independence, and the election may therefore provoke a constitutional crisis over the legality of a referendum on independence.
Pro-independence flags, a star against red and yellow stripes, hung over balconies all over Barcelona, Catalonia's capital city. Shop owner Margarita Bascompte said "in two weeks we sold more than we have in the last eight years".
Many Catalans believe they are taxed unfairly, crimping local spending on infrastructure and job creation. An estimated €16 billion (Dh76,2bn) in taxes paid in Catalonia, about 8 per cent of its economic output, is not returned to the region.
"Those who support [the president, Artur] Mas feel mistreated by Spain for a long time and we are fed up. The economic crisis has made the difference," said Rosabel Casajoana, 64, a teacher, emerging from a polling station having voted for Mas's conservative Convergence and Union party, or CiU,
CiU is expected to win most seats in the 135-seat regional assembly, or parliament.
But the projected 62 to 64 CiU deputies is short of an absolute majority, so Mr Mas - newly converted to separatism - will have to team up with smaller pro-independence groups such as the Republican Left, or ERC, to push ahead with a plebiscite.
That will put him on a collision course with Madrid, where the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, will use the constitution to block a referendum.
Home to car factories and banks that generate one fifth of Spain's economic wealth, and birthplace of the surrealist painter Salvador Dali and the architect Antoni Gaudi, the region also has one of the world's most successful football clubs, FC Barcelona.
With more people than Denmark and an economy almost as big as Portugal's, Catalonia has its own language. Like Basques, Catalans see themselves as distinct from the rest of Spain.
A recent convert to the cause of independence after a massive street demonstration in September, Mr Mas campaigned on a promise to hold a referendum on secession.
Catalonia's treasury is broke and the region's debt has been downgraded to junk. Blocked from the bond markets, Mr Mas has had to seek billions of euros in rescue funds from the central government, which is itself fighting to prevent financial meltdown.
But, on the campaign trail, Mr Mas focused on the region's gripes with Madrid. He told supporters he wanted to be the last president of Catalonia within Spain.
Voters said they felt this was the most important election since Spain returned to democracy in the 1970s after the Franco dictatorship.
The Catalan independence movement, which made a surprising comeback this year after decades of dormancy, has threatened Mr Rajoy's mission to bring down painfully high borrowing costs by persuading investors of Spain's fiscal and political stability.