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Catalan voters back self-rule parties

2012-11-26 08:37

Barcelona - Parties vowing a referendum on self-rule for Catalonia won massive backing in regional elections on Sunday, but voters punished the rich Spanish region's leader Artur Mas, forcing him to share power.

The result could set Catalonia up for a clash with Spain's central government, already riled by Mas's push for self-determination as Spain fights to avoid getting bailed out by its EU neighbours.

But it was unclear how Mas would move forward after he saw his support plunge in favour of rival parties that share his desire for a referendum but not his political objectives.

Mas's centre-right Convergence and Union alliance (CiU) won the vote, but its share of the parliamentary seats plunged to 50 from 62, while left-wing nationalists ERC surged to 21 seats from 10, official results showed with nearly all votes counted.

"We are clearly the only force that can lead this government, but we cannot lead it alone. We need shared responsibility," Mas told supporters in Barcelona afterwards.

"The presidency must be taken up, but we will also have to reflect along with other forces," said Mas, who had vowed to hold a referendum on "self-determination" if Sunday's vote gave him a strong mandate.

Independence far off


Though a humiliating setback to Mas, who called the election two years early after Madrid rejected his demands for greater fiscal powers for Catalonia, the vote gave forces favouring Catalan statehood a commanding majority overall in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.

"Support for sovereignty still comes out stronger because the ERC wins extraordinary force," said one of Mas's supporters, Jordi Fiol, 58, waiting for the CiU leader to appear on Sunday evening at Barcelona's luxury Majestic hotel.

"What the people really wanted was a pro-sovereignty majority, more than a victory by one party or another," said another, Laia Bartomeus, a 32-year-old lawyer.

The prospect of a break-up of Spain had overwhelmed debate about the region's sky-high public debt, savage spending cuts, unemployment and recession.

On Sunday from windows and balconies, some homes unfurled the red-and-yellow striped flag of Catalonia or the pro-independence flag that also incorporates a blue square with a white star.

An independent Catalonia seemed far off, however.

Language, culture repressed


Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says a referendum on self-determination would flout the constitution and hurt all Spaniards who are already suffering in a recession with the unemployment rate higher than 25%.

Catalonia, which traces its origins back more than a millennium, is proud of its language and culture, both of which were suppressed under the rule of General Francisco Franco, who died in 1975.

Mas, like many Catalans, accuses Madrid of raising far more in taxes from the region than it returns, and estimates the gap, or fiscal deficit, at €16bn a year - a figure Madrid disputes.

"After he wins, I would like President Mas to face up to Madrid, so they give us back the money they owe us, and call a referendum," said one voter, Gerard Ruiz, aged 38, a metal worker.

"Now we have started out on this road, we have to go all the way. We want to be an independent people."

Catalans would vote in favour of a referendum on self-determination by 46% against 42%, according to a survey last weekend in leading daily El Pais.

Anger


The region of 7.5 million people accounts for more than one-fifth of Spain's economic output and a quarter of its exports, and boasts one of the world's best football teams, Barcelona FC.

But Catalonia also has a €44bn debt, equal to one-fifth of its output, and was forced to turn to Madrid this year for more than €5bn to help make the payments.

For Pedro Nueno, an economist at IESE business school, the result "shows that people are angry because none of the politicians has put forward a clear plan to deal with our country's serious problems: Debt, unemployment, finance."