Barcelona (AFP) - Catalonia on Wednesday called a snap election for September centred on its independence bid, just two months after the wealthy region held a contested symbolic referendum on the issue that strained ties with Spain's central government.
Catalan president Artur Mas said the vote will be held on September 27, just a few months before Spain is expected to hold a general election, and exactly a year after he signed a decree calling an independence referendum which was blocked by Madrid in the courts.
"So one year after I signed this decree the Catalan people will have the possibility to vote for the state of Catalonia and even for an independent state," he told a news conference, speaking in English.
"We will see on that date if there is a social majority in favour of this political process. This is something that the Catalan people have to decide," he added.
Campaigning for the snap election will kick off on September 11, Catalonia's national day which has seen hundreds of thousands of people turn out in pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona in the past three years.
Regional elections were not due in Catalonia, which accounts for one fifth of Spain's economic output, until 2016.
Mas defied Madrid and on November 9 went ahead with a symbolic independence referendum organised by volunteers, after the Spanish government used the Constitutional Court to block plans for an official vote.
Some 80 percent of the nearly 2.3 million who voted on November 9 backed secession, but the turnout was little more than 40 percent.
After the poll Mas outlined a new roadmap towards independence, which included a proposal for early regional elections.
His goal is to obtain an absolute majority and a powerful mandate to open independence negotiations with Madrid within 18 months, paving the way for a binding referendum next year.
But Mas has struggled to persuade separatist parties to join his conservative CiU coalition on a joint list.
Under the agreement which Mas reached with Oriol Junqueras -- the leader of Catalonia's second-biggest party, the separatist ERC -- the two parties will run separate tickets but with a common roadmap toward secession.
- Election after election -
Earlier on Wednesday Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he would prefer it if Mas did not hold snap elections but could do nothing to prevent what would be the third regional election in Catalonia since 2010.
"It does not seem appropriate," he told a news conference in Athens where he was on an official visit.
"Countries need periods without elections to be able to focus on priorities" such as the economy, he added.
During the last regional election in 2012, Mas's CiU party lost ground. It currently has 50 seats in the 135-seat assembly while the ERC has 21.
Pro-independence parties in Catalonia will this time around have to face the sudden rise of Podemos, a left-wing anti-establishment party that has seen its poll ratings surge in both Catalonia and the rest of Spain since it was formed in January 2014.
The party, which tops polls at the national level, backs making serious changes to Catalonia's standing withing Spain without calling for outright secession, and could seduce a significant number of Catalans, said Jordi Argelaguet, the director of the Catalan Centre for Polling (CEO).
Pro-independence feeling has surged in Catalonia in recent years, fanned by disagreements with the central government and Spain's sharp economic downturn which has left nearly one in four people out of work.
But a poll carried out by the regional Catalan government last month suggest support for independence may be sliping.
Of the Catalans questioned, 45.3 percent said they would vote against breaking away from Spain while 44.5 said they would vote in favour of such a move.