Catalonia battles for sovereignty ahead of snap vote

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Catalonia's leader waged an all-out battle for nationhood on Monday, defying Madrid in the final run-up to snap regional elections this weekend.

The northeastern region's president, Artur Mas, vowed to push ahead with a referendum on Catalan "self-determination" even if he falls short of an outright majority in the November 25 vote.

Latest polls show his Convergence and Union alliance heading for a win but falling short of the absolute majority he is seeking in the region's parliament, based in Barcelona.

Even if those polls prove correct, Mas refused to consider dropping his separatist bid, saying there would still be a majority in the Catalan parliament favouring sovereignty.

"Abandoning it would be a fraud," he said.

Mas warned, however, that the nationalist campaign in this region of 7.5 million people would be "weakened" if he was unable to win an absolute majority at its head.

Surveys this weekend showed Mas's alliance winning 60-64 of the 135 seats in parliament, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party and the opposition Socialists fighting for second place.

A poll in leading newspaper El Pais found enough support to give Mas's party 62 seats, unchanged from the last election two years ago.

In a referendum on "self-determination", Catalans would vote in favour by 46 percent to 42 percent, the poll said, with support ebbing to 37 percent if independence meant leaving the European Union.

Catalonia, which is 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 health and education spending to curb its deficit, has the biggest debts in Spain -- equal to 22 percent of its annual output -- and 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 sought greater taxing powers from Rajoy but said he was rebuffed.

In response, he called the snap elections, vowing to seek a referendum on self-determination within four years.

He has been met with stiff opposition from Madrid.

"Catalans are not going to buy a train ticket with no return journey," the Spanish prime minister said Sunday.

The separatist bid defied history and would hurt all Spaniards, Rajoy cautioned as he campaigned in the Catalan city of Girona. A Catalan country would "not be taken very seriously in Europe", he said.

Right-leaning newspapers, too, have criticised Mas's independence drive, which comes as Spain battles recession, a bloated deficit, and a record 25-percent unemployment rate.

Mas said his party had filed suit against the conservative daily El Mundo, which accused him of having Swiss bank accounts out of reach of the taxman, and said the report was "pure libel".

Though now at the forefront of the separatist campaign, Mas had previously been seen as a moderate nationalist, and even now he avoids calling for complete independence.

The Catalan leader is seeking confrontation but is unlikely to get an absolute majority and go for a "head-on clash," said Gabriel Colome, political science lecturer at Barcelona's Autonomous University.

© 2012 AFP

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