Catalan leader seeks 'freedom' in snap election

The leader of Spain's Catalonia region has rallied cheering crowds to fight for "freedom" in snap elections Sunday that he has recast as a vote for nationhood.

Artur Mas, president of the northeastern region, is openly defying a furious Madrid by promising a referendum on sovereignty for Catalonia if Sunday's vote gives him a mandate.

"We are not vassals of the state," he told thousands of people chanting "independence" in a Barcelona stadium, wrapping up a bitterly fought campaign before a day of pre-vote reflection Saturday.

Mas urged supporters to be "builders of freedom".

"Catalonia is one of the oldest nations of Europe and all through history we have had to fight against very high obstacles, very strong setbacks," Mas said, slipping into English to reach a foreign audience.

"We have fought against armies, we have fought against dictatorships, we have overcome setbacks and now we are alive, our culture is alive, our language is alive, our nation is alive."

Catalonia is fiercely proud of its language and culture, which were suppressed by General Francisco Franco until the dictator's death in 1975 but returned to life under Spanish democracy.

The region has been welded to Spain since the nation's symbolic birth when Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, which included Catalonia, married in 1469.

In a forest of banners, Catalan and European flags at the stadium where Mas brought his campaign to a close, some placards called for Mas as president of a new Catalan nation.

"I'm for independence," said one supporter, 20-year-old student Anna Roses. "Artur Mas does not say the word because Madrid is putting on the pressure, but it's the only solution," she added.

As Spain struggles in a recession with one in four workers unemployed, many Catalans are straining against Madrid, which they blame for spending cuts and their troubled finances.

Mas accuses Madrid of raising far more in Catalan taxes than it returns and estimates the gap, or fiscal deficit, at 16 billion euros ($21 billion) a year, a figure Madrid disputes.

Emboldened by huge protests in Barcelona demanding independence on Catalonia's national day, September 11, Mas demanded greater taxing powers from Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

When he did not get the concessions he was seeking, he called the snap election.

Rajoy's right-leaning government is determined to thwart any referendum, however, saying it flies in the face of common sense and vowing to wield the Spanish constitution if necessary.

Latest polls show Mas's nationalist alliance, the conservative Convergence and Union, heading for a win in Sunday's vote but falling short of the absolute majority he is seeking.

Surveys a week before the vote showed Mas's party taking 60 to 64 of the 135 seats in parliament, not far from the 62 it now holds, with Rajoy's Popular Party and the opposition Socialists fighting for second place.

Nevertheless, pro-referendum parties are widely expected to enjoy a large majority in the new parliament.

Catalonia accounts for more than one-fifth of Spain's total economic output, a quarter of its exports, as well as boasting one of the world's greatest football teams, FC Barcelona.

But the region also has a 44-billion-euro debt, equal to one-fifth of its output, and was forced to go cap in hand to Madrid this year for more than five billion euros to help make the payments.

On the eve of the vote, some Spanish newspapers decried the dirty nature of the campaign.

Mas flatly denied as "libel and slander" allegations published in conservative daily El Mundo from a supposed draft police report saying he had a Swiss bank account beyond the reach of the taxman.

El Pais condemned Rajoy's government for leaving the allegations in ambiguity in the public's mind by failing to clearly deny or clarify the nature of the accusations.

"You can't throw the stone and then hide your hand," the paper said in an editorial headlined "Playing dirty".

The director of Barcelona-based daily La Vanguardia, Jose Antich, said only the results on Sunday would demonstrate the impact of the allegations.

"But the country emerges from this as the loser. Of that I have not the least doubt," he said.

Mas's party has sued for libel over the paper's accusation.

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