Catalonia Tuesday called snap elections over its drive for greater independence, deepening Spain's crisis as its government struggles to avoid a full-blown bailout.
Catalonia's President Artur Mas demanded "self-determination" for the region, raising pressure on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who has urged that the country stay united as it fights to secure its public finances.
"The time has come to exercise the right to self-determination," Mas told the regional parliament, after Rajoy last week rejected his proposals for greater powers of taxing and spending.
"We do not have to justify who we are. We want the same instruments that other nations have to preserve our common identity," he said.
Mas called an early vote for November 25, a de facto referendum on his demands for greater independence for the big northeastern region, which is fiercely proud of its distinct language and culture.
"The parliament that emerges will have a historic responsibility," he said.
He reiterated his call for Catalans to have more control over their economy, which accounts for a fifth of Spain's overall output.
"If Catalonia were a state we would be among the 50 biggest exporting countries in the world," he said.
Last month, Catalonia was forced to reach out for 5.0 billion euros ($6.5 billion) from a central government fund to help it pay its 40-billion-euro debt.
The region complains that it gets far less from Madrid than it pays in taxes.
"The sharing of sacrifices between the state and the regions is very unfair," Mas said. "The result is that the biggest cuts have to be made in health and education, which are the main responsibilities of the regions."
Hundreds of thousands of people staged a pro-autonomy demonstration in the streets of Barcelona two weeks ago. Polls show growing support for independence in Catalonia, but Spain's constitution bars a straight referendum on it.
"I think this debate, at this time, is creating tremendous instability," deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said on Cadena Ser radio.
"With all these actions a new crisis is being added to the crisis."
The central government blames the 17 autonomous regions, which control key health and education budgts, for much of the overspending that has pushed the country's public deficit far above its targets.
On Tuesday the country's most populous region Andalusia became the fourth to announce it was considering seeking emergency bailout funds from the central government.
That would bring to 15 billion euros the total amount sought by two other big regions, Catalonia and Valencia, plus the smaller southern region of Murcia, from the fund which has 18 billion euros overall.
Saenz said Tuesday the funds will become available this week and that the government calculated the 18 billion euros would be sufficient.
Rajoy also faces growing pressure from the financial markets and the streets.
After easing in recent weeks, Spain's borrowing costs crept up in a short-term debt auction on Tuesday.
Meanwhile demonstrators massed outside the parliament in Madrid to protest against painful economic reforms the government has made to try to lower the public deficit, including public sector pay cuts and a sales tax hike.
Hundreds of protesters from around the country gathered around Madrid and marched later to the lower house of parliament, the Congress of Deputies, in the city centre.
Police cut off the roads to the Congress with metal barricades and riot vans.
Clashes have broken out between protestors and police on the sidelines of several demonstrations over recent months.
Rallying outside the city's Atocha railway station, Carmen Rivero, 40, said she travelled overnight in a bus with 50 protesters from the southern city of Granada.
"We think this is an illegal government," she said. "We want the parliament to be dissolved, a referendum and a constituent assembly so that the people can have a say in everything."