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Artur Mas: Catalan helmsman on voyage for independence

Published on November 08, 2014

A great lover of the sea, Catalonia's president Artur Mas started out as a moderate politician but now has the winds of separatist passion in his sails.

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The storm of separatist sentiment has transformed the 58-year-old economist into the unlikely helmsman on Catalonia’s voyage for statehood.

Defying attempted bans by Madrid, he has steered his northeastern coastal region to a vote, scheduled for Sunday, on whether to break away from Spain.

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His critics elsewhere in Spain have accused him of flirting with sedition, branding him a populist, and even the left-wing parties with whom he is allied in the Catalan parliament have voiced mistrust.

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Those who know him say these are all calculated risks.

Mas keeps in his office a ship’s wheel given to him by his father, inscribed with nautical advice: “Cool head, hot heart, firm grip, feet on the floor.

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Observers say it is this typically Catalan blend of passion and pragmatism that brought him to the head of the independence movement at its most crucial point in decades.

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He initially intended Sunday’s vote as a kind of referendum but has since watered it down, in the face of Madrid’s legal challenges, to a symbolic vote organised by volunteers.

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He has said he may resort to another snap election to serve as a plebiscite on independence, putting his leadership on the line.

Pro-independence surge

Bespectacled with neatly brushed hair and a smooth manner, Mas cut a moderate figure as Catalonia’s president until the surge of pro-independence feeling swept him up.

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In 2010 the Spanish courts overruled a Catalan charter that designated the region as a “nation”.

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When Catalans chose Mas as their leader later that year, the polite man from Barcelona was steering a course for greater autonomy for the rich northeastern region, but not outright independence.

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But in September 2012, at the height of Spain’s economic crisis, more than a million Catalans filled the streets of Barcelona demanding the right to self-determination.

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“I understood that the people were on the march demanding for the first time loud and clear that the right to decide and to be a new state within Europe be made a reality,” he was quoted as saying in an interview by the author Teresa Pous.

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Days after the big march, Mas went to Madrid and asked the national government to give his heavily indebted region greater powers to raise and spend its own taxes.

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Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sent him away frustrated.

Mas responded by calling a snap election in Catalonia, campaigning with the promise of a referendum.

Unholy alliance

His right-leaning coalition CiU groups traditionally moderate middle-class nationalist parties.

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Mas, the son of a businessman, was seen as its archetypal leader.

But when his CiU coalition lost its parliamentary majority in the snap election, he was forced to strike an unholy alliance with the left-wing nationalist party ERC and work for a consensus between diverse pro-independence forces.

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“His support for independence does not come from his family background.

He makes no secret of that,” said Pous, who published a series of interviews she carried out with Mas.

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“But in the course of his daily political life, his powers of analysis helped him to grasp that without statehood Catalonia would get smaller and smaller,” she added.

Sense and passion

A slick orator, Mas has carefully weighed his words throughout the campaign, switching between his fluent Catalan, Spanish, French and English in speeches and interviews.

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Unlike the all-out separatists of the ERC, he has avoided using the word “independence”, speaking instead of a “national transition process”.

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Not until 2013 did he publicly state that he would vote for secession.

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Catalans often talk of their national character as a volatile balance of “sense” and “passion”, remarked Mas’s biographer Pilar Rahola.

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“Artur Mas prefectly represents the duality of sense and passion,” she said.

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Defying the Spanish government’s recent bids to block the vote, Mas has hardened his tone, describing the Spanish state as his the “adversary”, and playing the part of the brave captain.

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“I call on Catalan citizens not to be afraid,” he said on Wednesday.

“We are doing what we have to do.

We are doing it to defend ourselves, in legitimate defence of a whole people.

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