BARCELONA (AFP) - Catalans braced Saturday (Sept 26) for an election dubbed the most important in Spain's recent history, with polls pointing to a win by separatists who are vowing to declare the region independent.
After an emotional climax to campaigning on Friday, the rich northeastern region entered a quiet day of truce before Sunday's ballots, which Catalan leaders have framed as an indirect vote on breaking away from Spain.
Centre-right national newspaper El Mundo called them "the most important elections in the democratic era" since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
Moderate Catalan daily La Vanguardia called it "an unavoidable vote".
"These elections are special. They have aroused interest and great expectations in Catalonia and around the world," said Meritxell Borras, the regional government's top electoral official on Saturday.
She said applications for postal ballots had increased by 70 per cent compared to Catalonia's last regional election in 2012, indicating that turnout among its 5.5 million voters would be higher this time.
"I am going to vote for the independence movement. I think they are the ones who care the most about Catalonia," said Ms Vanesa Asensio, 34, working in a shoe shop.
But opponents of secession such as the Spanish government "make you doubt it. They say we'll end up without jobs," she said.
Campaigning against secession, Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy defended Catalans who do not want to break away.
"We are going through a time of confrontation. We are under pressure," said Maria Garcia, a 43-year-old computer specialist at Rajoy's closing campaign rally on Friday.
"The rest of Spain thinks we are all nationalists, but it is not true. And here, if you don't have a Catalan-sounding name, they are suspicious of you."
If Catalonia's 7.5 million inhabitants broke away, Spain would lose 16 per cent of its population, a quarter of its exports, a fifth of its overall economic output and hundreds of miles of strategic Mediterranean coastline.
Since the Spanish government has blocked his bid to hold a referendum, regional president Artur Mas has vowed to launch a roadmap towards independence by 2017 if he wins his majority.
To do so they will likely need to strike an accord with CUP, an anti-capitalist citizens' movement.
The latest opinion polls from the start of this week show the conservative Mas and his left-wing allies in the pro-independence list "Together For Yes" could win a majority in the Catalan parliament and nearly half the votes overall.
Internal surveys doing the rounds of the campaign offices over recent days confirmed that trend, according to two pollsters consulted by AFP.
"It is looking good" for the independence camp, said Alfred Bosch, one of the leaders of the left-wing ERC party, Mas's main allies in the election.
"A great many people are voting by post. I have never seen a campaign with so much popular enthusiasm," he told AFP.
'HISTORIC' CATALAN ELECTION
Rival leaders wrapped up their campaigns on Friday among the red and gold of Spanish flags in one camp and of striped Catalan ones in the other.
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.
Rajoy meanwhile urged voters to return Catalonia to "normality" after three years of mounting tension over separatist demands, fanned by the economic crisis.
The anti-independence vote is split between various groups, including Rajoy's Popular Party and the upstart centrists of Ciudadanos - a sign of the new political dynamic in Spain.