BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Voters in Catalonia on Sunday are choosing lawmakers for this wealthy Spanish region's parliament amid a threat from the Catalan leader to hold an independence referendum that would test the country's unity.
The regional government, led by Artur Mas, called early elections as part of a power struggle with the central government run by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy centered on the size of Catalonia's contribution to national coffers.
But what began as a quarrel over money has turned into a test over Spain's territorial integrity.
If voters give Mas strong support on Sunday, he has pledged to hold a referendum asking Catalans if they would prefer to split from Spain at a time of deep financial crisis.
"These are the most decisive and transcendental elections in the history of Catalonia," Mas said after voting in Barcelona. "There is much at stake for all 7 million of us Catalans."
Polls forecast a majority for parties supporting a referendum on independence, a plebiscite that Spain's central government has ridiculed and called "unconstitutional."
According to Rajoy, only central government has the constitutional right to call a referendum and then it would almost certainly have to include the whole of Spain.
Mild winter weather and blue skies helped long lines form at many polling stations early Sunday. By 1 p.m. (1200 GMT, 7 a.m. EST), the Catalan government calculated that voter turnout was higher than in the previous seven elections dating back to 1988.
Rajoy has said that talk of independence is a side issue to the country's real problem, which is to find a way to create employment and address its deficit.
While Rajoy is immersed in combating Spain's worst financial crisis in decades, Mas claims Catalonia is being asked to shoulder too much of the tax burden and that it could do better if it separated and tried to become an independent member state of the European Union.
"Five years ago I was in favor of a federal model with Spain, but now we have seen that is not viable," said Miquel Angel Aragon, a 37-year-old aid worker. "I am in favor of independence."
Catalonia is responsible for around a fifth of Spain's economic output and many residents feel central government gives back too little in recognition of the region's contribution.
Catalans have said in growing public protests that their industrialized region is being hit harder than most by austerity measures aimed at avoiding a national bailout like those needed by Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus.
Madrid has traditionally said that simplifying the state's financial model by excluding overall costs such as defense only creates a distorted image of how taxation and spending are distributed.
A rising tide of Catalan separatist sentiment was spurred when Rajoy failed to agree to Mas' proposals to lighten Catalonia's tax load and 1.5 million people turned out for the largest nationalist rally since the 1970s in Barcelona on September 11.
These growing economic concerns have combined with a long-standing nationalist streak in Catalonia, which has its own language and cultural traditions that were harshly repressed by the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco from the end of Spain's Civil War in 1939 to Franco's death in 1975.
One of the most potent symbols of the divisions distancing Catalonia and the country's capital city can be seen in the bitter rivalry between the Barcelona and Real Madrid soccer clubs.
In recent years, at least two grassroots groups have held unofficial referendums on independence in towns throughout the region, while some small villages have gone to the extreme of declaring themselves "free Catalan territories."
Catalans are viewed by most Spaniards as thrifty, hardworking people, and most _ not least many Catalans _ have been shocked by how Catalonia's regional debt has swelled to (EURO)42 billion ($54.4 billion) of the staggering (EURO)140 billion debt ascribed to all of Spain's regional governments.
The economic crisis has highlighted the high cost of running Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions alongside a central government.
The Catalan government has had to ask for a (EURO)5 billion ($6.5 million) bailout from Spain like other indebted regions.
Mas' government counters that each year it contributes (EURO)16 billion ($21 billion) more than it gets back from Spain. It also complains that important infrastructure projects needed to revive Spain's sick economy are being left unfunded.
Even so, many feel people feel they are both Catalan and Spanish, and are reticent of the idea of trying to divide the country.
"We are not separatists, we want to remain part of Spain," said retired industrial designer Francisco Palau, 69, who emerged from a polling station alongside his wife. "We defend current plurality," he said, adding that setting up a new state and government "would be very expensive."
Just over 5.2 million people are eligible to vote for candidates to fill the 135-seat Catalan parliament that sits in Barcelona.
Harold Heckle reported from Madrid.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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