Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy plans to block voteFriday, January 17, 2014
Catalonia defies Spanish capital with push for independence referendum
BARCELONA — Local lawmakers in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia voted to seek a referendum on breaking away from Spain yesterday, setting themselves up for a battle with an implacably opposed central government in Madrid.
The Catalan legislature in Barcelona voted 87 to 43, with 3 abstentions, to send a petition to the national Parliament seeking the power to call a popular vote on the region’s future.
The independence movement in Catalonia, which has its own language and represents a fifth of Spain’s national economy, is a direct challenge to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has pledged to block a referendum on constitutional grounds.
Independence for the region, which already has significant self-governing powers, is thus considered a remote possibility, but Catalan President Artur Mas is buoyed by a groundswell of public support to defy Madrid with plans for a referendum.
Polls show roughly half of Catalans want independence, but as many as 80 percent want the right to vote on the matter.
Pro-independence leaders in Catalonia say Rajoy should follow the example of British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government opposes Scottish independence, but is allowing the Scots to decide in a vote later this year.
Outside the Catalan legislature building, a few dozen demonstrators gathered, both for and against staying in Spain. Many flew the separatist banner — a lone white star in a blue triangle, against the background of Catalonia’s official red-and-yellow-striped flag.
“Rajoy is totally resistant to change. I don’t think he’s even aware of what is going on. He thinks this is a small spark that will fade away if he buries his head in the sand,” said demonstrator Isabel Guerrero, a 58-year-old retiree.
PRESSURE ON RAJOY
Business and political leaders of all stripes have piled pressure on Rajoy to diffuse the situation, perhaps by offering Mas greater control over taxes in exchange for dropping the referendum idea.
Isidre Faine, chairman of Barcelona-based La Caixa, Spain’s third biggest bank, this week called on Madrid and Catalan political leaders to negotiate a “grand pact.”
But Rajoy has so far refused to engage in public talks with Mas.
Critics worry the prime minister’s inertia has fanned the flames in the region of Catalonia. But time may once again be on the side of Rajoy, who over the last two years successfully resisted pressure to seek an international rescue to ward off a sovereign debt default and to force out Cabinet members or party leaders during a corruption scandal.
Several factors play into his hands. An incipient economic recovery could take off, easing tensions over tax distribution, one of Catalans’ main beefs with the central government. The independence drive could falter on internal political tensions in Catalonia or on quiet opposition from big business. And, without international support, Catalans could balk at the idea of having to leave the European Union or give up the euro to gain independence.
Yesterday’s vote in the Catalan legislature will trigger a chain of events that will likely lead to a stalemate.
First, the national Parliament in Madrid will almost certainly turn down the Catalan petition.
Then, Catalan leader Mas will set a date without permission from Madrid, which the Constitutional Court will block.
Mas has indicated that once all legal roads are exhausted, he will use Catalonia’s next regional election in 2016 as a proxy.
He could call early elections but he is more likely to wait until his conservative Convergence and Union (CiU) political alliance gets a poll boost from an expected economic recovery. If he held the proxy vote now, opinion polls show he would lose to the more radical independence party, Catalan Republican Left, ERC.
“The biggest concern is the absolute disconnect between the cities of Madrid and Barcelona. There’s no room for a negotiated solution right now,” said Antonio Barroso, political analyst with Teneo Intelligence.
Rajoy has little incentive to negotiate, said Barroso. He doesn’t want to give Catalonia a tax deal that will anger Spain’s other 16 autonomous regions nor launch a complex and controversial constitutional reform.
Herald with Reuters, AP