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BARCELONA, Spain — On Sunday, Catalonia, a prosperous region of 7.4 million people in northeastern Spain, goes to the polls to elect a new devolved parliament and government.
For many Catalans, however, the election is about more than the business of provincial administration. It is about national sovereignty.
“Personally, I’m going to vote for independence,” said Gonçal Badenes, a scientist who lives and works in Castelldefels, a suburb of Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital. “If you had told me 10 years ago that [I would support independence], I would have said no. But the situation has changed for me.”
Over the last five years, Catalan nationalists, or independentistas, have fought a grueling political campaign against Spanish rule, fueled, in part, by growing resentment among Catalans of the large fiscal subsidies they send to less developed parts of the country.
On Nov. 9 last year, Catalonia staged a nonbinding — and, according to Spanish government ministers, illegal — referendum on secession. Two million Catalans cast ballots, with more than 80 percent backing independence. If they win on Sunday, nationalists say they will have a mandate to break up Spain.
“The central government in Madrid has denied the right of Catalan people to express their views, to say whether they support independence or not. And this has completely reversed my opinion and the opinion of many people I know,” said Badenes.
“This is certainly the most important election Catalonia has held since we regained democracy,” said Laura Pous Trull, a journalist working for the Catalan news agency ACN. “It looks as though [the nationalists] will win the most seats and maybe a majority of votes.
“The Catalan government’s preference has always been to have a legal referendum, like the one Scotland had last year … But if Spain [refuses] to move a millimeter, it is possible that Catalonia will declare independence [unilaterally].”
This spring, in an effort to maximize their leverage, Catalonia’s two main nationalist parties — center-right Convergència, which has governed the region for most of the last 30 years, and center-left Esquerra Republicana — agreed to form a joint electoral list. Polls suggest that the resulting coalition, Junts pel Si (Together for Yes), will secure about 65 of the devolved Catalan parliament’s 135 seats, leaving it just shy of the 68 seats needed to declare outright victory. However, Junts pel Si is likely to receive the support of left-wing separatist party CUP, whose projected share of 10 seats would all but guarantee nationalist control of the parliament.
Catalan president and Convergència leader Artur Mas has set out an 18-month timetable for separation. During this period, he intends to develop the infrastructure of an independent state, including a distinct Catalan tax authority and an embassy network.
Inevitably, Mas’ plan has enraged conservative Spanish politicians, who insist on Spain’s territorial integrity. Earlier this month, Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenés warned that military intervention in Catalonia would not be necessary, “as long as everyone does their duty.”
Madrid’s hard-line stance against Catalan separatism has been backed by an array of global leaders. In recent weeks, U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have all expressed support for Spanish unity.
‘This is certainly the most important election Catalonia has held since we regained democracy.’
Laura Pous Trull
journalist, ACN news agency
Nonetheless, Catalan diplomats are convinced that, if Catalonia votes to leave Spain, international policymakers will eventually accommodate the embryonic Catalan state.
“We are very serious about self-determination,” said Albert Royo, the secretary-general of the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, a Barcelona-based organization dedicated to promoting Catalan interests abroad. “There will be a moment in time when the international community recognizes that there will be no U-turn, that we are going to go for it.
“At that point, [international institutions] will recognize that their interests are at stake, and they will convince Madrid to sit down and find a proper democratic solution.”
One potential solution might be a new federal settlement for Spain that grants Catalonia greater economic and fiscal autonomy. This is the preferred option of Spain’s opposition Socialist Workers’ Party. Although the socialists currently trail Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s right-wing Partido Popular in the polls, they may yet end up in power after the Spanish general election in December. With the support of Podemos, the insurgent left-wing party led by charismatic academic Pablo Iglesias, the socialists could have enough seats to lock Rajoy out of office.
Yet even with a new government in Madrid, the Spanish constitutional system could still scupper the prospects of a federal compromise.
“Maybe a coalition between the Socialist Party and Podemos will open a fresh dialogue,” said Marc Vidal, the foreign editor of the Catalan newspaper Diari ARA. “Podemos wants to shake the Spanish state … and the socialists say they will support a referendum if there is a legal basis. The problem is there is no legal basis in the constitution, and in order to change the constitution, you need a two-thirds majority in the Spanish Congress. So it would be very difficult.”
As Sunday’s vote approaches, the debate over Catalonia’s future is becoming increasingly heated. Given the potentially explosive consequences of the poll, Spanish unionists argue that the nationalist coalition should have to win at least 50 percent of votes cast before it even considers initiating divorce proceedings against Spain. But this idea is dismissed by independentistas, who say Spain has left Catalonia with no choice but to call elections.
“Personally, I think the momentum is really strong and the outcome on Sunday is going to be really positive,” said Liz Castro, a Californian who has lived in Barcelona for more than a decade and is involved with the independence movement at the grass-roots level.
“The official road map is that these elections count as the referendum and if we win on Sunday, then we start moving toward independence. If Spain had allowed us to have a referendum, it would be much easier to count the ‘yes’ and “no’ votes. With these elections standing in for a referendum, we are going to follow the parliamentary rules for winning a majority. At some point, you just have to make a decision.”