Catalonia will defy Madrid on Sunday when it holds a symbolic vote on whether it should break away as an independent state.
Despite the fierce opposition from Madrid, leaders of one of Spain’s biggest and richest regions have stuck by their plan in a constitutional stand-off unprecedented in post-Franco Spain.
Vowing to defend the unity of the country as it recovers from an economic crisis, Madrid has mounted a series of constitutional appeals to try to block the vote.
But Catalans have pushed ahead defiantly, fired up by the independence referendum held in Scotland in September, even though Scots voted not to break away from Britain.
Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says his country cannot hold an independence referendum like Scotland because, unlike Britain, it has a written constitution that forbids it.
Proud of its distinct language and culture, Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people, accounts for nearly a fifth of Spain’s economy.
Demands for greater autonomy there have been rumbling for years, but the latest bid by the region’s president Artur Mas has pushed the issue further than ever before.
Catalonia took a step towards greater autonomy in 2006 when it formally adopted a charter that assigned it the status of a “nation”.
But in 2010 the Constitutional Court overruled that nationhood claim, fuelling pro-independence passions.
Spain’s recent economic crisis has increased unemployment and hardship in the region and swelled its debts, but in 2012 Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected Mas’s request for greater powers for Catalonia to tax and spend.
In response, Mas vowed to hold an official yet non-binding vote on independence, but the Spanish government’s legal challenges forced him to water that down.
Sunday’s polls will be staffed by volunteers.
There is no official electoral roll but the regional government says 5.4 million Catalans and resident foreigners aged 16 and over are eligible to vote.
The ballot papers will put two questions to voters: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state?” and if so, “Do you want that state to be independent?”
Mas has dubbed Madrid “the adversary” and urged Catalans “not to be afraid” and to vote “in legitimate defence of a whole people”.
Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria issued a veiled warning to Mas, advising “reflection” and cautioning against considering oneself “above the law”.
The regional government says results are expected on Monday.