Catalans are heading to the polls on Sunday in a symbolic vote on the northeast region's independence from the rest of Spain.

Ballot boxes have been distributed in 1317 polling stations, far less than in a normal election, and Catalans are still finding out where they have to vote by inquiring at pro- independence stands placed in cities and towns, or looking it up on special websites set up by local institutions.

Opinion polls show that as many as 80 percent of the 7.5 million people in the northeast region are in favour of increased autonomy from Spain, with about 50 percent in favour of full independence.

Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said his country cannot hold an independence referendum like Scotland because, unlike Britain, it has a written constitution that forbids it.

Rajoy called on Catalonia's leaders to begin talks "within the legal framework of the constitution." The prime minister said that because of its illegal status, the poll would be "neither a referendum nor a consultation nor anything of the sort, and it won't have any effect at all."

But Catalans have pushed ahead defiantly, fired up by Scotland's independence referendum in September, even though Scots voted not to break away from Britain.

Proud of its distinct language and culture, Catalonia accounts for nearly a fifth of Spain's economy.

Demands for greater autonomy there have been rumbling for years, but the latest bid by the region's president Artur Mas has pushed the issue further than ever before.

Catalonia took a step towards greater autonomy in 2006 when it formally adopted a charter that assigned it the status of a "nation".

But in 2010 the Constitutional Court overruled that nationhood claim, fuelling pro-independence passions.

Spain's recent economic crisis has increased unemployment and hardship in the region and swelled its debts, but in 2012 Rajoy rejected Mas's request for greater powers for Catalonia to tax and spend.

In response, Mas vowed to hold an official yet non-binding vote on independence, but the Spanish government's legal challenges forced him to water that down.

Source: Agencies