BARCELONA (AFP) - Catalans started voting on Sunday in an election dubbed the most important in Spain's recent history, with polls pointing to a win by separatists who vow to declare the region independent by 2017.
Polling stations opened under cloudy skies in Barcelona, where red-and-yellow-striped Catalan flags hung from buildings, with more than 5.5 million of Catalonia's 7.5 million inhabitants eligible to vote across the region.
With the Spanish government refusing a referendum in its drive to keep the country united, leaders of Spain's richest region say Sunday's regional election will serve as an indirect vote on breaking away from Spain.
Separatist feeling has surged in the recent years of economic crisis in the euro zone's fourth-biggest economy.
On Saturday, fans waved them in the stands at the Camp Nou football stadium at a match of Barcelona football club, a powerful talisman for the independence movement.
Centre-right national newspaper El Mundo called Sunday's polls "the most important elections in the democratic era" since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
Wrapping up his campaign in Barcelona on Friday, Catalonia's nationalist president Artur Mas told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters that the election would "lead to freedom".
"Sunday is a special day for the future of Catalonia. It is a historic day," he bellowed.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy meanwhile urged voters to return Catalonia to "normality" after three years of mounting separatist tension.
"There is a majority of Catalans who love their people and love their land, and do not want to see it amputated from Spain and from Europe," he told supporters.
Mr Mas wants Catalonia to follow the example of Scotland and Canada's Quebec region in holding a vote on independence - though in both those cases most voters chose not to break away.
Mr Rajoy has secured the backing of US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, among others, who have called for Spain to stay united.
Nationalists in Catalonia, which has its own language and cultural traditions, complain that they get less back from Madrid than they pay in taxes.
"We want to be a free country so we can decide for ourselves and not have to wait for the Spanish state to tell us what to do," said one voter, Mr David Jovany, a 21-year-old student, at Mr Mas' rally.
Mr Mas has vowed to launch a roadmap towards independence by 2017 if he wins a majority in the regional parliament.
Opinion polls show the conservative Mr Mas and his left-wing allies in the pro-independence list "Together For Yes" could win that majority and nearly half the votes overall.
But they will likely need to strike an accord with CUP, an anti-capitalist citizens' movement which polls show could act as kingmaker - a sign of Spain's new political dynamic after the economic crisis.
Mr Mas' camp "will find it hard to strike a deal, but we have every desire to," one of the CUP's outgoing deputies, Quim Arrufat, told AFP.
"We are going to make some very intelligent proposals to transform this overly presidential political process into a democratic process for the people."
Voting stations open at 7am GMT and close at 6pm GMT.