Catalan leader vows nationhood referendum in 2014
Catalonia's leader Artur Mas signed a political deal Wednesday to renew his leadership of the northeastern region while seeking a referendum in 2014 on splitting from the rest of Spain.
Mas' conservative Convergence and Union alliance emerged the winner in November 25 regional elections after promising a referendum on self-determination in the teeth of fierce opposition from Madrid.
But the party's share of Catalonia's 135 parliamentary seats plunged to just 50 from 62 as many voters reacted against a painful austerity squeeze in the midst of the Spanish recession.
With no absolute majority, Mas ended up striking an agreement late Tuesday with the Republican Left of Catalonia.
The left-wing pro-independence party, which surged from 10 to 21 seats in last month's vote, agreed to support support Mas' re-election as president of the region without actually entering into a coalition.
Catalonia's attempts to fit into Spain while retaining self government and "legitimate national aspirations" had been repeatedly rebuffed, a copy of the agreement said.
The two parties now agreed Catalonia must "start a new stage" to guarantee social progress, economic development, the strengthening of democracy and to protect the Catalan language, it said.
The deal underscored "their explicit commitment and political determination to hold a consultation of the Catalan people so they can decide freely and democratically on their collective future."
Mas told the Catalan parliament that the alliance would respect the popular will for "a path towards sovereignty".
The referendum on self-determination had powerful enemies who were "without scruples", he said.
The emergence of an independent Catalonia seems a distant prospect, however.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to block any break-up of Spain, saying it flouts the constitution.
The Spanish leader is demanding unity as he ponders seeking a bailout and struggles to overcome a deep recession, banking crisis, bloated deficit, and a 25-percent unemployment rate.
Catalonia, which traces its origins back more than a millennium, is proud of its language and culture, both of which were suppressed under the rule of General Francisco Franco, who died in 1975.
But Catalans feel they get a raw deal from Madrid, which raises far more from Catalonia in taxes than it returns to the bustling region, a shortfall Mas estimates at 16 billion euros ($21 billion).
Catalonia, which has a debt of more than 40 billion euros, had to go cap in hand to Madrid this year for more than five billion euros to help make the payments, further stoking resentment.
At the same time, the wealthy region is being forced to cut spending on health, education and social welfare so as to help trim Spain's annual public deficit.
Catalonia now accounts for more than one-fifth of Spain's economic output and a quarter of its exports, and boasts one of the world's finest football teams, Barcelona FC.
© 2012 AFP