Local lawmakers in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia voted to seek a referendum on breaking away from Spain yesterday, setting themselves up for a battle with an implacably opposed central government in Madrid.
The Catalan parliament in Barcelona voted 87 to 43, with three abstentions, to send a petition to the national parliament seeking the power to call a popular vote on the region's future.
Catalonia has its own language and represents a fifth of Spain's national economy. The move is a direct challenge to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has pledged to block a referendum on constitutional grounds.
Independence for the region, which already has significant self-governing powers, is considered a remote possibility, but Catalan President Artur Mas is buoyed by a groundswell of public support to defy Madrid with plans for a referendum.
Polls show roughly half of Catalans want independence, but as many as 80 per cent want the right to vote on the matter.
Pro-independence leaders in Catalonia say Rajoy should follow the example of British Prime Minister David Cameron. His government opposes Scottish independence, but is allowing the Scots to decide in a vote this year.
Outside the Catalan parliament building, a few dozen demonstrators gathered, both for and against staying in Spain. Many flew the separatist banner - a lone white star in a blue triangle, against the background of Catalonia's official red-and-yellow-striped flag.
Business and political leaders of all stripes have piled pressure on Rajoy to defuse the situation, perhaps by offering Mas greater control over taxes in exchange for dropping the referendum idea.