Catalan voters back pro-statehood parties: exit poll
Catalans voted massively for forces promising a referendum on self-determination and a chance to split from Spain in a snap election Sunday, an exit poll showed.
The vote sets the stage for a constitutional clash between Catalonia and the right-leaning Spanish government, which has vowed to block any independence bid.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has demanded unity as he ponders a sovereign bailout for the eurozone's fourth-biggest economy, deep in recession with a 25-percent unemployment rate.
Instead, Catalans turned their back on Madrid.
Catalonia's conservative 56-year-old leader Artur Mas had pleaded for an absolute majority, offering to spearhead a struggle for nationhood in defiance of Madrid.
Voters left the nationalist Convergence and Union alliance with a strong lead but slashed its majority, giving it 54-57 seats, down from 62 now, said the exit poll.
The party stressed that it had again emerged the victor.
"The consequence of these first figures is that the next parliament will have as a goal a consultation of Catalans on self-determination," said the alliance's campaign manager, Luis Corominas.
The big winner of the night was the Republican Left of Catalonia, a left-wing pro-independence party, which more than doubled its seats to 20-23 from 10 now, it said.
The result, though a humiliating setback to Mas, who called the election two years early, still gave forces favouring Catalan statehood a commanding majority overall in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.
The prospect of a break-up of Spain has sparked an open conflict with Madrid and overwhelmed debate about the region's sky-high public debt, savage spending cuts, unemployment and recession.
From windows and balconies, some homes unfurled the red-and-yellow striped flag of Catalonia or the pro-independence flag that also incorporates a blue square with a white star.
An independent Catalonia seems far off, however.
Rajoy says a referendum on self-determination would flout the constitution, defy common sense and hurt all Spaniards.
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.
Mas accuses Madrid of raising far more in Catalan taxes than it returns, and estimates the gap, or fiscal deficit, at 16 billion euros ($21 billion) a year -- a figure Madrid disputes.
"After he wins, I would like President Mas to face up to Madrid, so they give us back the money they owe us, and call a referendum," said one voter, Gerard Ruiz, 38, a metal worker.
"Now we have started out on this road, we have to go all the way. We want to be an independent people."
Catalans would vote in favour of a referendum on self-determination by 46 percent against 42 percent, according to a survey last weekend in leading daily El Pais.
The region was welded to Spain at the nation's symbolic birth when Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, which included Catalonia, married in 1469.
Now the region of 7.5 million people 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.
But Catalonia also has a 44-billion-euro debt, equal to one-fifth of its output, and was forced to turn to Madrid this year for more than five billion euros to help make the payments.
Emboldened by huge protests in Barcelona demanding independence on Catalonia's national day, September 11, Mas demanded greater tax-raising powers from Rajoy.
When the Catalan leader did not get those concessions, he called the election two years early.
© 2012 AFP