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Catalan Vote Seen as Referendum on Secession From Spain

Catalan voters went to the polls on Sunday in a regional election billed by local governing politicians as a plebiscite on secession from the rest of Spain.

The push by separatist Catalan politicians has already plunged Spain and the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy into its most serious crisis since June 2012, when Mr. Rajoy was forced to negotiate a European banking bailout in the midst of the euro debt crisis.

The vote was expected to confirm separatist parties as the main political force in Catalonia. However, recent polls also suggested that the parties were set to gain a narrow majority in the next Catalan Parliament, which could then allow a new Catalan government to go ahead with a plan to set up a new state within 18 months, despite fierce opposition from Madrid.

The Madrid government has repeatedly warned that any breach of Spain's Constitution would be struck down by Spanish courts and could even lead to sanctions and the suspension from office of secessionist Catalan politicians. The president of the Spanish central bank also recently said that Catalan banks would be cut off from European Central Bank funding, which has been critical for Spanish and other financial institutions that were crippled by the euro debt crisis and unchecked property lending. The warnings against Catalan secession have stretched as far as Spanish soccer authorities, who have said that F.C. Barcelona, the current European champions, would be excluded from competing in the Spanish Liga.

European leaders have also recently waded into the debate, aware that any unilateral split by Catalonia from the rest of Spain could send the European Union into uncharted waters, at a time when the bloc's ability to produce a common response to a crisis has already been severely tested by a wave of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries. A Catalan secession could also fuel the separatist claims of other European regions.

During a recent visit to Madrid, David Cameron, the British prime minister, suggested that Catalonia would have to reapply for European Union membership, joining the end of a list of existing candidates. Last September, Scots rejected independence in a referendum authorized by Mr. Cameron's government.

The regional parliamentary election was called by Artur Mas, leader of Catalonia's governing party, Convergence. He presented the election as a proxy vote on independence after Convergence agreed with the other main, left-wing separatist party to run as a joint list of candidates.

The joint "Together for Yes" list was heading for a small majority of the 135 seats in the Catalan Parliament, counting also seats likely to be won by another far-left separatist party, which refused to join the common list. Under the Spanish system of proportional representation, separatists could win the most seats without having an absolute majority of votes.

The Catalan election is taking place two months before a national election that could also reshape Spanish politics, as two emerging parties threaten to unseat Mr. Rajoy's Popular Party and also break up Spain's two-party system. While also calling on Catalans to remain within Spain, Podemos, a left-wing party, supports a referendum on Catalan independence. The main opposition Socialist party has also pledged a constitutional reform that could turn Spain into a federal country.

With a possible year-end overhaul of the national government in mind, Mr. Mas and other separatist leaders have recently refrained from making clear if and when a new Catalan government could declare unilateral independence.

On the other hand, Sunday's vote could instead fragment further Catalonia's Parliament and leave Mr. Mas facing strong calls for his resignation should the joint separatist list fail to win a majority. While pushing for secession, Mr. Mas and his Convergence party have also been entangled in a major fraud scandal since last year, when the party's founder admitted to tax evasion.

The standoff between Mr. Rajoy and Mr. Mas started in 2012 with a financial dispute over the tax contribution that wealthy Catalonia should make to poorer regions of Spain. Mr. Mas then turned his frustrated demand for fiscal concessions into a full-fledged drive for independence.

The first exit polls were set to be released at 8 p.m. local time, when stations close. Final results were expected around 10:30 p.m. The importance of Sunday's vote was expected to lead to a record turnout in a region whose 7.5 million citizens account for 16 percent of Spain's population and almost a fifth of its economic output.

Catalonia was at the forefront of Spain's industrial revolution and has since remained the powerhouse of the Spanish economy, with Barcelona also the country's main tourism hub. Catalans have their own language and cultural identity, but the region also has a significant Muslim community and about 1.4 million Catalans who were born in other parts of Spain.

[Source: By Raphael Minder, The New York Times, Barcelona, 27Sep15]

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