Artur Mas, unlikely champion of Catalan statehood
Artur Mas seems an unlikely popular champion for Catalonia's independence struggle.
A bespectacled 56-year-old economist, Mas chooses his words shrewdly as he tiptoes between outright calls for an independent Catalonia and a simple grab for economic autonomy.
Yet despite never pronouncing the word "independence" on the campaign trail ahead of snap regional elections on Sunday, he has whipped up a fervour among Catalans who want to redraw the map of Spain and declare statehood.
His arms raised in a final campaign speech Friday, he addressed a capacity crowd of 18,000 people who chanted "independence" in unison and waved a sea of Catalan and European Union flags.
"We are not vassals of the Spanish state," he declared to delighted supporters packed into a Barcelona stadium.
Such are the emotions raised among Catalans who blame Spain for their financial suffering that the region's top newspaper, La Vanguardia, asked Mas if he was painting himself as a Messiah.
"It is not true. I am not a Messiah. I am a leader who serves the people," said the Catalan government president.
"I am not a political animal," said the married father of three, a fine orator who has transformed snap regional elections into a Catalan nationhood campaign.
He seems to have tapped a deep well of resentment in Catalonia, proud of its distinct cultural identity and language, which were suppressed under General Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975.
On September 11, 1714 Aragon surrendered its powers to the Bourbon kings who had won power in Spain in the War of Succession and Catalan nationalists regard that as the year they lost their sovereignty.
-- 'This patriot who is Artur Mas' --
When hundreds of thousands of Catalans flooded Barcelona on that anniversary on September 11 this year, Mas seized the moment to demand greater taxing powers from Madrid.
Claiming he had been rebuffed, Mas called the election and promised a referendum on independence, pleading for an absolute majority to help that cause.
The great-grandson of a sailor and son of an entrepreneur, Mas went to a French high school in Barcelona and studied economics at university.
He served in politics in the time of Jordi Pujol, who led Catalonia from 1980-2003 and picked Mas as his successor.
Yet as a younger man Mas never seemed destined for politics.
Unlike many Catalans of his generation, Mas admits he did not join in the region's struggle against Franco.
Born Arturo Mas on January 31, 1956 in Barcelona, he only changed his first name to its Catalan version in 2000, though he denies any political motive.
He joined the nationalist alliance, Convergence and Union, a moderate, conservative force that he now leads, in 1987 at the age of 31.
Almost his entire career has been spent in Catalan government, taking senior posts since 1995 and being selected as his alliance's candidate for Catalan president in 2003 and again in 2006; he lost both times.
But in 2010 Mas triumphed with a large majority with the promise of striking a fiscal pact with Madrid that would allow Catalonia to raise its own taxes rather than relying on the Spanish state.
He is still riding a wave of indignation driven by a Spanish constitutional court ruling in 2010 that weakened Catalonia's 2006 autonomy statute and found that its use of the word "nation" had no legal weight.
Until this campaign considered a moderate, Mas has become more strident in his call for statehood under pressure from a younger and more radical element in his alliance, nicknamed within the party "the taliban" and led by Jordi Pujol's son, Oriol Puyol.
"We would have a problem if we could not have someone of the capacity, the muscle of this man, this patriot who is Artur Mas," Oriol Puyol said.
Pilar Rahola, author of a biography of Mas, said he was a politician who managed to transmit both reason and passion.
"He has his feet on the ground, he thinks hard, but it is quite possible that he will be the man who creates the biggest conflict with Spain in the history of Catalonia," she said.
© 2012 AFP