Leader of Spain's Catalonia flounders after vote setback
Catalan leader Artur Mas scrambled for allies to govern Monday after a snap election slashed his majority, hobbling his campaign for nationhood and a split from Spain.
Mas' decision to call the vote two years early looked like a gamble gone horribly wrong after voters turned out in massive numbers to trim his majority, not to boost it.
"Mas' plan sinks at the ballot box," blared the front page of Spain's leading newspaper, centre-left daily El Pais.
"After asking for an 'exceptional majority', ending up with less than an absolute majority was a failure; but ending up far from that implies a spectacular failure," it said.
Mas' centre-right nationalist alliance, Convergence and Union, remained well ahead in the vote but its share of the 135 parliamentary seats plunged from 62 to just 50.
Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), a left-wing pro-independence party, surged from 10 seats to 21.
"Voters went in massive numbers to the urns not to give him a mandate for independence as he asked, but to make him look ridiculous by inflicting a very hard electoral punishment," gloated conservative daily El Mundo.
Mas, like many Catalans, accuses Madrid of raising far more in taxes from the region than it returns, a shortfall he estimates at 16 billion euros ($21 billion) a year.
Emboldened by the hundreds of thousands of people who flooded the streets of Barcelona calling for independence on Catalan national day September 11, Mas decided to demand seek greater tax powers.
But when Madrid refused, he called the snap election and promised to hold a referendum on self-determination within four years if the people gave him a strong mandate.
That decision put Mas on a collision course with Spain's right-leaning government, which vowed to block any break-up of Spain, insisting that it flouted common sense and the Spanish constitution.
Mas' party had never previously favoured absolute independence from the rest of Spain, said Joaquin Molins, political science professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
"This first time they have campaigned with the formula of a proper state has been a complete failure," he said.
Pro-independence parties dominate the Catalan parliament, as they did before the vote.
But it is unclear whether Mas' conservative forces could cobble together an alliance with the left-wing ERC.>
"We are clearly the only force that can lead this government, but we cannot lead it alone. We need shared responsibility," Mas told supporters in Barcelona after the vote.
"The presidency must be taken up, but we will also have to reflect along with other forces," said Mas.
The Socialists, the main opposition party nationally, came third in Catalonia as their share fell to 20 seats from 28 and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party scored 19.
The prospect of a break-up of Spain had overwhelmed debate about the region's sky-high public debt, savage spending cuts, unemployment and recession.
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.
Catalans would vote in favour of a referendum on self-determination by 46 percent against 42 percent, according to a survey before the election in leading daily El Pais.
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 best 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.
© 2012 AFP