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Independencia, say Catalans; but it's a bumpy road ahead

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:08 IST

Separatists in Spain's prosperous northeastern region of Catalonia celebrated on 28 September after an election victory that has possibly put the people there on track to establish the world's newest country.

But their failure to win an absolute majority and fierce opposition from the central government in Madrid in these elections - widely billed as a proxy independence referendum - makes it likely that months of negotiations and uncertainty lie ahead.

A coalition of pro-independence parties, 'Together for Yes', won 62 of the 135 seats in Catalonia's regional Parliament in Barcelona in Sunday's elections.

"We have won," said Catalonian leader Artur Mas as a euphoric crowd cheered him on with chants of "Independence!"

Catalonia's "independentistes" - they don't like to be called nationalists or separatists - now are the largest voting bloc, but they don't have an absolute majority. They need a governing partner to enact their agenda - most notably an 18-month timeline for declaring Catalonia independent.

Meanwhile, Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Monday vowed to block the creation of an independent Catalonia at all costs, calling it unconstitutional.

What happens next?

The winning coalition will try to build a governing majority of 68 seats in Catalonia's Parliament. It already has 62 seats and needs six more. The Popular Unity Party's 10 seats would be more than enough. Negotiations are underway.

The Popular Unity Party also supports independence but isn't part of the coalition as it opposes the austerity measures and privatisations that have been emblematic of Mas' centre-right business friendly party - the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia.

What's the Spanish government's position?

The central government in Madrid considers secession as a violation of Spain's constitution, which stipulates the "indivisible unity" of Spain. PM Rajoy said on Monday he would not compromise on that question.

"I am ready to listen and to talk, but not in any way to liquidate the law," he said. "I am not going to talk about either the unity of Spain or sovereignty."

Another issue before the "independentistes" is a new law approved by Rajoy's conservative government. It gives the Constitutional Court power to sanction elected officials and civil servants who fail to comply with its rulings. Catalan officials, for example, could be fined or suspended from office. Catalan officials have not said publicly whether or how they might resist such suspensions, if imposed.

However, there is a growing opinion in Madrid that the government should engage with the separatists. And since Madrid and Barcelona do not share much common ground, there should be mediation, most likely by the Swiss, as suggested - and the Catalonian issue must be taken up by the European Union (EU).

But well before the separatists' 18-month deadline, Spain will hold nationwide elections, probably in late December, whose outcome could change the Catalans' ideas about independence.

If Rajoy falls from power, a new government in Madrid could negotiate enhanced powers of taxation or spending for Catalonia, which could alleviate discontent and avert a declaration of independence.

What's the case for Catalan independence?

Catalonia is a region of about 7.5 million people in northeastern Spain, bordering France.

It is Spain's wealthiest region, per capita, with lots of industry, car factories and ports. About a fifth of Spain's GDP is generated there, making the region's economy almost equal to Portugal's. Catalonia is also Spain's biggest tourist hub, with Barcelona as its capital.

Catalonia has its own culture and language, called Catalan, distinct from those in other parts of Spain. The region has sought greater autonomy for long. Many Catalans fought on the losing Republican side of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s.

Afterwards, under the nearly 40-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, Catalan language and some local festivals were banned. Many Catalans say they feel different from other Spaniards because of that history of repression.

Some Catalans trace their drive for independence to a more recent event: Spain's economic crisis. They believe their wealthy region pays an unfair share of taxes to the central government in Madrid.

Have they voted on independence before?

In November, Catalonia held an unofficial, informal, symbolic referendum on independence from Spain. More than 80% of those who cast ballots backed secession from Spain. But the turnout was low - a mere 42% - as the government in Madrid considered the vote illegal and non-binding.

By contrast, the turnout in Sunday's elections was about 77%, a record in the region.

Will an independent Catalonia stay in EU?

There is no provision in the EU for a part of a member state to declare independence. Catalonia's secession will automatically send it out of the EU and eurozone.

However, the region's prosperity and economic strength, and its pro-Europe society, are likely to act as incentives for some sort of compromise. The European Commission has so far refused to take a position.

First published: 29 September 2015, 10:52 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.