Catalonia faces momentous regional elections next Sunday when the hitherto unassailable conservative nationalists are set to be ousted by socialists for the first time since the years of the Spanish republic in the 1930s.
The expected seismic shift in Spain's richest region is prompted by the retirement of Catalonia's veteran President Jordi Pujol after 23 years - and will call into question the country's flexible post-Franco constitution.
The canny and conservative Mr Pujol railed unceasingly against the central government in Madrid for withholding powers and funds he claimed were Catalan. His most likely successor is the region's socialist leader, Pasqual Maragall, known internationally as the mayor who transformed Barcelona. Seizing the opportunity of the 1992 Olympics, Mr Maragall, 62, revolutionised a grey backwater into a dynamic, stylish metropolis.
Behind Mr Maragall's teddy-bear manner and murmuring speech is a steely operator with political skills honed in the dying days of Franco. When New Labour thought of an electable mayor for London, their model was Mr Maragall. When the Portuguese sought to revive Lisbon's rundown waterfront for Expo 98, they visited Barcelona for inspiration.
However, Mr Maragall will hardly have a free hand to repeat his magic on the wider Catalan stage. Nationalism has grown and radicalised under Mr Pujol, and if opinion polls are to be trusted, Mr Maragall is likely to have to rule jointly with a powerful left-wing separatist party called Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left), and possibly also with a green-communist alliance, Initiative for Change.
Esquerra Republicana would rather declare an independent Catalan state than traipse cap in hand to Madrid for what they consider to be theirs. "We've had enough of submission," ER's leader, Josep Lluis Carod-Rovira, said this week, and promised to call a referendum on a new statute of autonomy, in the teeth of opposition from Madrid.
Opinion polls put Mr Maragall's socialists neck and neck with the former ruling Convergence and Union party (CiU), now led by Artur Mas - who was handpicked by Mr Pujol after the old strongman politically destroyed more substantial successors. But polls give neither main party nearly enough seats to rule alone, so the field is abuzz with speculation about possible pacts. Only a left-wing combination could muster an absolute majority.
Nationalists talk of transforming Catalonia into a sovereign nation "in association" with Spain; Mr Maragall's socialists want to recover "eroded" powers. But no Catalan proposes armed action comparable to the Basque separatist group ETA. This is a power struggle over identity and money, but no one wants to spill blood.
Catalonia's biggest gripe is that Madrid collects the region's taxes and hands back Barcelona's share. But Catalonia is viewed as the engine room of the national economy, Spain's most prosperous region, and always complains it is short-changed.
"We need an important transfer of resources. We have never received all we need. There is a distributional imbalance," Mr Maragall said this week. Catalans want to raise their own taxes - as the Basques do, by ancient right - then send a share to Madrid.
This prospect so rattles Madrid that Jose Maria Aznar's government warns of a potential constitutional crisis, although Mr Maragall says the plan requires only that the constitution be "interpreted elastically". He blames Mr Aznar for provoking separatist sympathies. "There's been backtracking on the recognition that Spain is a plural state. Spain is constipated. Five more years of Aznar and it would explode."
Spain's democratic constitution, approved in 1978 after the death of Franco, loosely defines the relationship between the autonomous regions and the central power in Madrid. As Spaniards prepare to celebrate next month's 25th anniversary of this pragmatic, flexible, document, many reckon its greatest achievement has been to keep Spain's independence-minded regions from breaking away.
Mr Maragall stresses his commitment to a Mediterranean Euro-region that straddles the Pyrenees. Centred on Barcelona, the region includes Valencia, Aragon and the Balearic Islands, plus Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrenees in France. Common interests include water management and high-speed train links. Proposing a competing regional loyalty, plus Catalan representatives in Brussels, amounts to yet another elegant snub to Madrid. This idea, too, is backed by CiU nationalists.
The prospect of a grand coalition between Catalonia's two main parties after next Sunday is barely whispered, however, so entrenched are ancient class divisions between them. But if Mr Maragall and Mr Mas stood shoulder to shoulder demanding more powers and money, Madrid wouldn't have a leg to stand on.Reuse content