Catalan president stakes it all with snap poll on independence

SHAFAQNA – Catalan president Artur Mas has called a snap election in September to try to win a majority in favour of independence from Spain for the wealthy region as he tries to revive a secession movement that shows signs of cooling.

“All or nothing,” wrote Catalan daily newspaper El Periodico de Catalunya on its front page on Thursday a day after Mas said early elections would be held on September 27 centred on the independence issue.

Regional elections were not due in Catalonia, which accounts for one fifth of Spain’s economic output, until 2016. It will be the third election third regional election in Catalonia since 2010.

If parties in favour of independence win a majority of seats in the 135-seat Catalan parliament they will have a strong mandate to try to open talks with Madrid on breaking away from Spain, a move that would be fiercely opposed by the central government.

But if they fail to obtain a majority the separatist drive which has increased steadily in the region since 2010, fuelled by Spain’s sharp economic downturn, risks deflating.

Despite holding massive street demonstrations in Barcelona, separatists do not form a majority in Catalonia, which is home to around 7.5 million people, according to most polls.

During a symbolic independence referendum held on November 9 which was run by pro-independence volunteers only 1.9 million out of 6.3 million potential voters cast their ballot in favour of secession.

Even a regular poll carried out by the regional Catalan government found a slim majority of people in Catalonia would vote to stay part of Spain, the first time since it started polling people on the issue in 2011, that a majority has come out against independence.

Divisions among parties in favour of independence deserves the blame.

While Mas, who belongs to the conservative nationalist CiU coalition, defied the central government in Madrid and went ahead with the symbolic referendum despite a court injunction, his allies – the separatist ERC party — have demanded that he go further and act faster.

Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the ERC, Catalonia’s second-biggest party which has made gains in opinion polls, has pushed for early elections as soon as March.

But Mas wanted all separatists to form a joint list to stand in the election which would allow him to remain at the helm of the movement despite his party having been weakened by a series of corruption scandals.

The two parties ended up agreeing on a compromise — will run separate tickets for the election in September but with a common roadmap toward secession.

– ‘Uncertainty is bad’ –

Before the election they will try to reach an agreement on the budget and social security system which an independent Catalan state would have.

“The absence of an agreement between the ERC and the CiU, their confrontation on the big day, was causing them a great deal of harm,” said University of Barcelona political science professor Jordi Matas.

Both Mas and Junqueras apologised on Wednesday night to their supporters for their divisions when they announced the agreement for the early elections.

With municipal elections set for May and a general election expected at the end of the year, Spain’s central government appears to be counting on voter fatigue in Catalonia to fight the separatist threat.

“Calling three regional elections in five years does not seem to me to be very serious,” Spain’s Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz said during an interview with public television TVE on Thursday.

“Now that we are starting to emerge from the tunnel and get out of the economic crisis, anything that creates instability and uncertainty is bad,” he added.

Albert Rivera, the head of the small centrist anti-independence party Ciudadanos which is gaining in popularity in Catalonia and the rest of Spain, said Catalans were “tired of a government that does not govern and goes from failure to failure while draping itself in the separatist flag”.

But few analysts predict at this point that the separatists will fail.

“They still have very significant support, much stronger than two years ago, which can still rise in a few months” with the mobilisation of an election campaign, said political science professor Lluis Orriols of the University of Carlos III in Madrid.

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