Independence flags fluttering from balconies, Catalans voted in huge numbers on Sunday in a snap election that could lead to a historic split from Spain.

Artur Mas, president of the north-eastern region has promised to hold a referendum on self-determination within four years if the 5.4 million voters give him the mandate to do so.

“These are the most decisive elections in the history of Catalonia, the most transcendental, in which we all play a role as country, as a people,” said the 56-year-old Catalan leader cast his vote.

The latest opinion polls suggest Mr. Mas’ ruling nationalist party, Convergence and Union Party (CIU), will retain the most seats in parliament but fall short of the absolute majority it wants.

Pro-independence parties would share control of the new parliament, the polls show.

Four hours after voting began, Catalan government figures showed voter participation at a 24-year high for this point in the election: 29.35 per cent compared to 24.79 per cent in 2010.

The prospect of a break-up of Spain sparked an open conflict with Madrid and overwhelmed debate about the region’s sky-high public debt, savage spending cuts, unemployment and recession.

An independent Catalonia seems far off, however.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s right-leaning government says a referendum on self-determination would flout the constitution, defy common sense and hurt all Spaniards.

The vote could drive a wedge into the eurozone’s fourth largest economy as it fights the deepest economic crisis since the return of democracy. — AFP