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Catalan Leader Defies Spain by Signing Decree for Secession Vote

The regional leader of Catalonia signed a decree on Saturday to hold an independence vote that the Spanish government has promised to block, pushing his northeastern region into a risky and direct confrontation with the central government in Madrid.

After signing the decree, the regional leader, Artur Mas, said the independence vote would show that "Catalonia wants to decide pacifically and democratically its political future." He added, "Nobody should fear that somebody expresses his opinion by placing a vote in a ballot box."

The vote is scheduled on Nov. 9.

Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has vowed to block the Catalan secessionist drive and to push the nation's constitutional court to rule swiftly that such an independence vote would breach the constitution.

Mr. Rajoy was returning to Spain on Saturday from an official visit to China. He told Spanish reporters before leaving Beijing that Mr. Mas had acted irresponsibly and "put himself into a mess," probably because "he thought we would step back."

Mr. Mas is pushing ahead with his independence plan after voters in Scotland rejected their own referendum this month on separating from the United Kingdom. While Scotland's independence would have been welcomed as a significant precedent, Mr. Mas has called the Scottish vote a "great lesson in democracy" that Mr. Rajoy should heed.

Mr. Rajoy and Mr. Mas have been at loggerheads for two years, after Mr. Rajoy turned down a request for Catalonia, which accounts for almost one-fifth of Spain's economy, to receive more favorable fiscal treatment from Madrid.

The signing of the decree on Saturday allowed Mr. Mas to begin the referendum campaign as early as Sunday -- at least until the process is suspended by Spain's constitutional court pending a decision over the Madrid government's appeal.

Mr. Mas, however, has also been under intense political pressure in Catalonia, both from secessionist hard-liners who want him to stand firm against Mr. Rajoy, and from opposition politicians demanding that he shed light on a major tax-fraud scandal centering on Jordi Pujol, the founder of his Convergence party.

Mr. Pujol, the patriarch of Catalan politics, told lawmakers on Friday that money he had admitted to hiding offshore was inherited and not earned from kickbacks and other corrupt practices during his 23 years in charge of the regional government. He did not, however, reply to specific questions about his current wealth and possible involvement in past Catalan corruption cases.

The leader of the Catalan branch of the Popular Party, Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, said in a news conference on Saturday that Mr. Mas had "crossed the red line of legality" by signing the decree. "Illegality isn't democracy," she added.

The leader of the Catalan branch of the Socialist party, Miquel Iceta, said at another news conference on Saturday that Mr. Mas was "generating false expectations" among Catalans by signing an illegal decree. "The only way is that of dialogue and negotiation," he said.

[Source: By Raphael Minder, The New York Times, 27Sep14]

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