By Silvio Castellanos
BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) - A general strike called by pro-independence campaigners in Catalonia severed transport links on Wednesday, as leaders of its secessionist movement sought to regain political momentum after failing to agree a joint ticket to contest an election.
Protesters shut down roads, causing huge tailbacks into Barcelona, and some public transport ran minimum services in response to calls for action by two civic groups -- whose heads were imprisoned last month on sedition charges -- and a labor union.
People stood across dozens of major highways in the region waving placards and chanting "freedom for political prisoners", TV and video images showed, while minor scuffles were reported on social media as police attempted to move protesters.
While many smaller stores left their shutters closed, most larger shops and businesses in the region appeared to be open as normal.
An uphill task awaited the political heavyweights of the independence campaign, whose parties jointly ran Catalonia for the last two years until Madrid sacked the region's government in response to its independence push.
Deposed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont's center-right PDeCAT and the leftist ERC of former regional vice president Oriol Junqueras had until midnight on Tuesday to agree a new pact, but they failed to meet that deadline, meaning they will contest the Dec. 21 vote as separate parties.
The central government in Madrid called the election last month after assuming control of Catalonia following its parliament's unilateral independence declaration.
Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Belgium, while Junqueras is in custody on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.
'JUNCKER WON'T MEET ME'
Puigdemont, who faces the same charges and is the subject of a extradition request from Madrid, had ambitions to garner support for his independence campaign in the heartland of the European Union.
But that hope has fallen flat, and in an interview published on Wednesday he renewed criticism of the bloc's executive.
"(EU Commission President Jean-Claude) Juncker welcomes mayors, governors ... but he doesn't want to meet me," Puigdemont told Belgian Daily De Standaard.
"I've always been a convinced European ... But the people who are running the EU now, are wrecking Europe ... The gap between the Europe of the people and the official Europe is increasing."
Catalonia's secessionist push has plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in four decades, triggered a business exodus and reopened old wounds from the country's civil war in the 1930s.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has been unwavering in his opposition to any form of independence for Catalonia, said he hoped next month's election would usher in "a period of calm" and business as usual for the region.
"I'm hoping for massive participation in the election.. and, after that, we'll return to normality," he said in the Madrid parliament building on Wednesday.
An opinion poll released on Sunday by Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia showed Junqueras' ERC could garner between 45 and 46 seats in Catalonia's 135-strong regional assembly while Puigdemont's PdeCat would win just 14 or 15.
In order to reach the 68-seat threshold for a majority, they would then have to form a parliamentary alliance with anti-capitalist CUP.
ERC and PDeCAT could still reach an agreement after the vote, but by standing together they could have held more seats, polls and projections from the 2015 election results showed.
Economy Minister Luis de Guindos told a banking conference in Madrid he hoped the election would revive the Catalan success story "during which it has enjoyed great economic and cultural prosperity together with a high level of self-governance."
For some Catalans who ignored Wednesday's strike -- called by the CSC union and supported by civic groups Asamblea Nacional Catalana (ANC) and Omnium Cultural -- that moment is already overdue.
"Why should I strike, nobody is going to raise my salary. In this world we have to work and not argue so much," Jose Luis, a construction worker, told Reuters TV as he walked through Barcelona on his way to work.
"The politicians should work more and stop their silliness."
(Additional reporting by Paul Day in Madrid and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; writing by John Stonestreet; editing by Paul Day)