Catalan voters back separatists

Catalan voters back separatists

Catalan voters back separatists

Supporters of the Republican Left cheer during an election in Barcelona. Catalan voters handed the majority of the Parliament to separatist parties. REUTERS photo

Separatists in Spain’s Catalonia won regional elections Nov. 25 but failed to get a resounding mandate for a referendum on independence, which had threatened to pile political uncertainty on top of Spain’s economic woes.

Catalan President Artur Mas, who has implemented unpopular spending cuts, had called an early election to test support for his new drive for independence for Catalonia, a wealthy but financially troubled region in northeastern Spain.

Voters frustrated with the economic crisis and the Spanish tax system handed almost two-thirds of the 135-seat local Parliament to four different separatist parties that all want to hold a referendum on secession from Spain.

But they punished the main separatist group, Mas’ Convergence and Union alliance (CiU) cutting back its seats to 50 from 62. That will make it difficult for Mas to lead a united drive to hold a referendum in defiance of the Constitution and the central government in Madrid. “Mas clearly made a mistake. He promoted a separatist agenda and the people have told him they want other people to carry out his agenda,” Reuters quoted the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Madrid office, Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, as saying. Catalonia’s traditional separatist party, the Republican Left (ERC) won the second biggest presence in the Catalan Parliament, with 21 seats. The Socialists took 20 seats, while Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s centre-right People’s Party won 19.

‘More complex’

Three other parties, including two that want a referendum on independence, split the remaining 25 seats. The result will come as a relief for Rajoy, who is battling a deep recession and 25 percent unemployment while he struggles to cut high borrowing costs by convincing investors of Spain’s fiscal and political stability. Mas, surrounded by supporters chanting “independence, independence,” said he would still try to carry out the referendum but added that, “it is more complex, but there is no need to give up on the process.”

Catalonia shares some of its tax revenue with the rest of Spain and many Catalans believe their economy would prosper if they could invest more of their taxes at home. The tax issue has revived a long-dormant secessionist spirit in Catalonia. Catalonia’s economy is almost as big as Portugal’s and it generates one fifth of Spanish gross domestic product.

CiU argues that a Catalan state would fare better as a member of the EU than a province of Spain.