Catalonia Drops Independence Referendum, to Call Elections

Separatists in Catalonia call off plans for an independence referendum. But not really.

Catalonia dropped plans for an independence referendum on Tuesday but regional president Artur Mas said there would be a vote nonetheless. While not binding, this would be a proxy plebiscite, he suggested, provided all separatist parties campaign on a single program.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hailed the decision as “excellent news,” but it doesn’t seem to have tempered separatist sentiment in what is Spain’s richest province.

A referendum, originally scheduled for November 9, was suspended by Spain’s highest court last month after the central government lodged a legal challenge against it.

Mas told a news conference in Barcelona that a “definitive consultation” could only be held “through elections that the parties turn into a de facto referendum, with joint lists and a joint program.”

With this demand, the conservative Convergence and Union party leader hopes to stave off an electoral challenge from the less compromising Republican Left. Mas rejected proposals from this party — the second largest in Catalonia’s regional parliament — to interpret a legislative victory for the separatists as tantamount to a vote for independence.

Catalan frustration

Many Catalans, who are among the richest people in Spain, feel they are bearing the brunt of the country’s economic crisis. The region accounts for 16 percent of Spain’s population but more than a fifth of its economic output, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other parts of Spain.

Commentator Enric Juliana writes in Catalonia’s leading newspaper, La Vanguardia, that the region’s discontent is really no different from the rest of Spain’s — “with one difference that has become important: the possibility to imagine, as a way out, an independent and separate reality.”

By far most Catalans desire a say in their future. Polls show some 80 percent of the region’s 7.5 million inhabitants are in favor of a referendum. Hundreds of thousands marched in the streets of Barcelona last month for the right to hold a vote after Scottish voters had rejected secession from the United Kingdom in a referendum of their own.