Catalans vote in angry battle for nationhood
After a campaign poisoned by accusations of dirty tricks and by warnings of economic catastrophe, Catalonia votes Sunday in an election that could end up redrawing the map of Spain.
Artur Mas, president of the northeastern region, is promising a referendum on self-determination if the vote goes his way.
Strong emotions have been stirred by the prospect of a farewell to Catalonia, which traces its history back more than a millennium.
Catalonia was there at the symbolic birth of Spain when Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, a region that included Catalonia, married in 1469.
Now the region of 7.5 million people has a significant weight in Spain's economy, accounting for one-fifth of its total output, and a greater share of its exports.
Analysts disagree on the consequences of a possible split, but some warn of a grave impact on Spain if it loses one of its main motors of growth and also on the entire eurozone.
"Can the euro survive without Catalonia? The answer I think is 'no' in its present form," said Barcelona-based economist Edward Hugh.
An independent Catalonia, which has its own debts of 40 billion euros ($51 billion) and would likely have to shoulder a slice of Spain's sovereign debt in any deal to separate from the rest of the country, would immediately need an IMF bailout, he said.
But as a dynamic economy, it could eventually make necessary reforms, the economist predicted.
If a highly competitive Catalonia emerged, however, it could create problems for Portugal and Greece, which might not be able to compete in tourism and other basic areas, Hugh said.
On the other hand, a group of 15 Catalan economists both for and against independence rejected some analysts' warnings that Catalonia would be left isolated, its citizens unable to travel to Spain without a passport and its exports being hindered at new frontiers.
In fact, Catalans could even retain their Spanish passports, which cannot be revoked under the Spanish constitution, they said in an article published Sunday in Barcelona-based daily La Vanguardia.
Catalonia also could keep the euro without being in the eurozone, they said. And if Spain decided to block its entry into the European Union, Catalonia could strike Swiss-style free trade deals with the bloc.
Spain's conservative Popular Party government is set against Mas' independence drive.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said it defies history and common sense, and he has called for unity to vanquish Spain's economic troubles, which have left banks in crisis, one in four workers unemployed, and a recession apparently set in concrete until at least 2014.
In this charged climate, Mas has accused the Spanish state of being complicit in conservative newspaper El Mundo's recent allegations that he had a Swiss bank account out of the reach of the taxman.
His nationalist coalition, Convergence and Union, has filed suit for libel and he has demanded explanations from Rajoy as to how the allegations, which he flatly denies, reportedly ended up in a police report.
Spain's leader has denied Mas' charges of state involvement as "false".
Latest polls show Mas' alliance heading for a win but falling short of the absolute majority he is seeking.
Surveys this weekend showed Mas' alliance taking 60-64 of the 135 seats in parliament, not far from the 62 it now holds, with Rajoy's Popular Party and the opposition Socialists fighting for second place.
Nevertheless, pro-referendum parties are widely expected to enjoy a majority in the new parliament.
And in a referendum on "self-determination," Catalans would vote in favour by 46 percent to 42 percent, according to a survey in leading daily El Pais.
Spain's economic crisis has served to stoke the pro-independence passions.
Catalonia, which is fiercely proud of its distinctive language and culture, feels it gets a raw deal because Madrid levies far more in taxes than it returns to the region.
At the same time, it is slashing spending to curb its deficit, it has the biggest debts in Spain, equal to 22 percent of its annual output, and it has had to go cap in hand to Madrid for a rescue loan.
Emboldened by huge protests in Barcelona demanding independence on Catalonia's national day, September 11, Mas demanded greater taxing powers from Rajoy. When he did not get the concessions he was seeking, he called the snap election.
© 2012 AFP