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Catalonia poll: Spain’s unity put to the test as voters take step towards independence

Artur Mas casts his vote

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By Fiona Govan, Barcelona

8:53PM GMT 25 Nov 2012

The incumbent regional president Artur Mas secured a second term and with it a mandate to seek secession from Spain in defiance of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

But his centre right Convergence and Union (CIU) party fell short of the absolute majority they hoped for, winning only 50 of the 62 seats they secured in the 135 seat assembly at the last election two years ago.

The separatist left wing ERC party, which also strongly supports self-rule, doubled its share of the vote, securing 21 seats, however.

Acknowledging that his support fell in favour of leftist parties, Mr Mas said alliances would have to be sought.

”From this result we note that we are clearly the only force that can lead this government, but we cannot lead it alone. We need shared responsibility,” the 56-year leader told supporters in Barcelona.

”There must be a period of reflection in Catalonia over the coming days. The presidency must be taken up, but we will also have to reflect along with other (political) forces,” he said.

Overall, with 97 per cent of the vote counted Sunday, pro-independence parties secured 74 seats, making it likely that a Scottish style referendum would be held within four years.

The election results set the stage for a showdown with Madrid, threatening Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy with the biggest political crisis since the nation’s transition to democracy.

Mr Mas called the snap elections two years early, centring his campaign on the promise of a referendum on independence for Spain’s wealthy northeastern region.

Polls show up to 57 per cent of Catalans would vote yes to independence, a figure that has nearly doubled since the start of Spain’s economic crisis in 2008.

Anger over “unfair” tax demands from Madrid have fueled separatist sentiment in the industrious and economically important region, as Spain suffers deep economic crisis and unpopular austerity measures.

Many voters believe the region, which boasts a strong cultural identity and its own language and contributes 20 per cent of Spain’s economic output, would fare better economically as an individual state within the European Union.

But the drive for independence risks Catalonia being blocked out of the European Union, threatening devastating consequences for Catalan trade.

There is widespread perception that Catalonia’s resources have been drained by Madrid with the region of 7.5 million residents paying about 15 billion euros more than it gets back from the national treasury every year.

Mr Mas was forced to go cap in hand to Madrid earlier this year to ask for a 5 billion euro lifeline to help meet operating costs in a region with a debt of 48 billion euros.

He has blamed tax transfers to Madrid as the root of the region’s woes and tried to negotiate a new fiscal treaty, a move that was rejected by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

The regional election threatens to set Catalonia further on a collision course with Madrid with the central government warning it will fight any moves that could lead to the break-up of the eurozone’s fourth largest economy.

Mr Rajoy, already battling to avoid an international bail-out for Spain and growing social unrest within a nation suffering 25 per cent unemployment, faces a looming constitutional crisis as his conservative government seeks to use all “available measures” to block such a referendum, which is banned under Spain’s constitution.

There are fears that any move to independence by Catalonia could be swiftly followed by the Basque Country and force a renegotiation of terms across Spain’s 17-semi autonomous regions.

But one of the biggest hurdles ahead is whether a newly independent Catalonia could remain within the European Union and the euro currency. Brussels has indicated that membership would not be automatic and it would have to join the queue. The admission process would likely be blocked by a vengeful Spain.

During weeks of campaigning the region has filled with Catalan national flags in a wave of separatist sentiment.

By 6pm, some 56 per cent of the 5.2 million eligible voters had visited the ballot box, some 8 points higher than in the last regional election two years ago.

”This is an historic moment,” said Jordi Casas, 24, as he cast his vote at a polling booth in Barcelona. “The time has come to say ‘enough’. Madrid doesn’t represent our interests and now we want the chance to decide our own future.”

Others have said the campaigning has focused too heavily on independence, while issues of the economy were set aside.

”I think these elections are a disgrace because countries are there to unite, not divide,” said 65-year-old pensioner Josep.

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