BARCELONA • Spain's Catalonia region has called early regional elections for Sept 27, polls that will serve as a proxy vote on independence and raise tensions with the central government in Madrid.
Catalan President Artur Mas signed a decree on Monday, setting the date for the vote in the wealthy north-eastern region, home to 7.5 million people and accounting for a fifth of Spain's output.
The decree made no reference to independence, but Mr Mas - who already faces criminal charges for staging a mock independence referendum in November despite Madrid's objections - has said that if an alliance of pro-secession parties wins a majority, they aim to split from Spain within 18 months.
"Politically, they will not be normal elections; politically, they are a plebiscite on Catalan freedom and sovereignty," Mr Mas said last week.
The regional government has already started setting up institutions of state, which would go into gear if the pro-independence camp wins. Last week, officials presented plans for a future Catalan tax agency and adopted a decree paving the way for a public credit institution to be turned into a Catalan central bank.
The issue of Catalan independence had fallen off the headlines in recent months, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government more focused on the challenge in a year-end general election from new anti-austerity party Podemos than from Catalan separatists.
But it returned to the political spotlight last month, after Catalan pro-independence parties set aside their differences and agreed to run on a joint ticket in the regional polls.
A smaller far-left party supporting independence refused to join them, but could prove key to achieving the majority in the regional assembly.
Spain's central government has vowed to oppose Catalonia's moves.