By Adrian Croft
MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Tuesday lambasted Catalan plans to test support for independence by holding a regional election, saying he would not allow anyone to break up Spain or to derail an economic recovery.
Rajoy's broadside against Catalan President Artur Mas's scheduling of regional elections for Sept. 27 came as his government presented a 2016 budget intended to show the ruling People's Party as the best qualified to maintain economic stability after national elections due by the end of the year.
Spain's recovery is gathering strength after years of deep economic crisis. The economy grew at its fastest since 2007 in the second quarter and unemployment is falling, although it remains above 20 percent.
Mas announced elections for the Catalan parliament on Monday evening, bringing them forward by a year and portraying them as a proxy vote on independence after Rajoy's government went to court last year to block a referendum on the northeastern region breaking away from Spain.
Rajoy ruled out Catalan independence and said he hoped the regional elections would put an end to the "discord, division and confrontation" created by the Catalan independence push.
"We can't go on with this situation much longer," he told reporters in Huelva in southern Spain. "Nobody is going to break up Spain ... Nobody is going to turn the citizens of Catalonia into foreigners in their own country."
"We will absolutely not allow political instability created by some people's decisions to affect the economic recovery," he said.
Separatist leaders have said in recent weeks that a victory for them in the election would launch a "roadmap" to Catalan independence within 18 months, although they have not said how they would overcome the staunch opposition from Madrid.
Catalan separatist campaigners defied Madrid and staged a symbolic vote on independence last November. About 80 percent of the 2.2 million people who voted backed secession, but the turnout was little more than 40 percent.
Their fervor was boosted by a Scottish referendum on independence from Britain, even though it ended in a 'no' vote.
Apart from Catalan nationalism, Rajoy faces new political challenges from the rise of the anti-austerity Podemos party and the centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens) group.
After leading the polls as recently as April, Podemos slipped to third in a recent Metroscopia poll, with the center-right People's Party and opposition Socialist Party vying neck-to-neck for the lead.
The government presented the 2016 budget to parliament on Tuesday - two months early. The government said it wanted the budget approved before the national election to avoid market uncertainty, but it drew accusations of electioneering from Socialists and the unions. [ID:nL5N10B39X}
The budget holds out the prospect of an easing of austerity if the People's Party is re-elected, promising spending increases, tax cuts and a pay rise for civil servants.
(Additional reporting by Blanca Rodriguez; Editing by Angus MacSwan)