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Catalan separatists predicted to win absolute majority in regional elections
Separatists were poised to win control of Catalonia's regional government on Sunday, after exit polls suggested a result that could plunge Spain into a political crisis by forcing Madrid to confront an openly secessionist government at the helm of one of its wealthiest regions.
In an election that saw a record-breaking voter turnout, an exit poll by the Catalan broadcaster TV3 suggested that the nationalist coalition Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) was on track to win 63 to 66 seats, leaving them just shy of the 68 seats needed for an absolute majority in the 135-seat parliament.
The far-left pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy, known in Spain as CUP, was on track to win 11 to 13 seats, making the anti-austerity party the kingmaker in Catalonia's new parliament. The two parties together received 49.8% of the vote, according to exit polls.
After attempts by Catalan leaders to hold a referendum on independence were blocked by the central government in Madrid, Artur Mas, the head of Catalonia's regional government, turned the elections into a de facto plebiscite on the issue. If separatists won a majority of seats in the election, Mas pledged to lead a transitional government that would begin the process of seceding from Spain.
Sunday's elections were billed as one of the most important votes in the region's history, as voters queued for hours to cast a ballot on whether Catalonia should break away from Spain. Regional authorities said they expected the turnout to hit record highs, noting that turnout reached 63% with two hours left until polls closed, an increase of 7% over the same time period in the 2012 elections.
The probable result means Catalonia is now on a collision course with the central government, as any move towards independence will be blocked by Spain's conservative governing party, the People's party (PP). The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has called the push for independence "nonsense" and vowed to use the full power of the country's judiciary to block any move towards independence.
In recent years, Rajoy has repeatedly turned to the country's constitutional court to close down moves towards secession, backed by the Spanish constitution, which does not allow regions to unilaterally decide on sovereignty.
The PP recently gave Spain's constitutional court the power to sanction elected officials and civil servants who failed to comply with its rulings.
As the bill, which imposes fines of up to €30,000 (£22,000) and suspensions from office, was presented before MPs, Xavier García Albiol, the PP leader in Catalonia, left little doubt that it was aimed at quelling Catalan separatism. "This is a very clear message for those who want to break up Spain: the joke is over," he said. The PP is expected to use its absolute majority in parliament to have the bill approved in the coming days.
But the first hurdle for Catalan separatists will be to find common ground between Junts pel Sí, a coalition of parties from the right and left as well as grassroots activists, and the CUP.
"It's not going to be easy," said Josep Ramoneda, a political analyst. CUP has stated that the process of independence would only be legitimate if they won a majority of seats and votes. They have objected to the idea of Mas leading the transitional government, pointing to a string of corruption scandals that have plagued his party, Democratic Convergence, in recent years. CUP has also pushed for a more immediate break with Spain, rather than the 18-month timeline envisaged by Junts pel Sí.
Any alliance with CUP may also modify the route to independence envisioned by Junts pel Sí. Mas has said the transitional government's first step would be a declaration, made within days of taking office, proclaiming the beginning of the process of breaking away from Spain.
From there, the priority of the government would be to hold talks with Madrid and European institutions, Mas said during the campaign. The focus of the talks would be issues such as the management of shared borders, the energy grid and the Ebro river basin.
Mas said the regional government was committed to making the split as amicable as possible. "If the yes vote wins today, the attitude of the Catalan public institutions will be to sit down at the table with the Spanish institutions, with the European commission, with the European countries, and try to deal with this big issue in the most positive way for all of us, not only for Catalonia," Mas said as he cast his vote.
If Madrid refuses talks with the region, Mas warned that Catalonia could retaliate by walking away from its share of the public debt, accounting for roughly a third of Spain's total debt.
Mas's government plans to begin drafting a constitution for Catalonia, hoping to draw on citizen participation to inform its content.
The creation of state structures will also begin - from a diplomatic service to a central bank - to be ready in time for the proclamation of a new Catalan state. "We have some state structures right now," Mas said during the campaign, pointing to the region's public healthcare, education and police service. "But we lack others."
Plans for the first of these new state structures, a regional tax agency modelled on that of Sweden and Australia, was halted by Spain's constitutional court earlier this month after the court agreed to hear a challenge lodged by the central government in Madrid.
The same fate could befall many of the state structures envisioned by Mas. With just days left before polling, Rajoy said Madrid would continue to use the courts to block any move towards Catalan independence. "We would go to the constitutional court. And that's the way it is. Full stop," he told the broadcaster Onda Cero.
[Source: By Ashifa Kassam in Barcelona, The Guardian, London, 27Sep15]
DDHH en España
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