Catalonia vote: Early exit polls show region may be on road to independence
Catalans may have set their region on the road to independence as early analysis suggested they had handed their separatist leader a mandate to push for a break with Spain.
By Fiona Govan, Barcelona TELEGRAPH
8:53PM GMT 25 Nov 2012
As ballot boxes closed in the region's parliamentary elections, the first exit polls showed that voters had chosen to return the centre-right Convergence and Union (CIU) to power, giving them between 54 and 57 seats in the 135 seat regional assembly.
The party's leader and incumbent president, Artur Mas, had pledged to call a referendum on Catalan independence if returned to office.
The exit polls also showed that the separatist left wing ERC party appeared to have doubled its share of the vote, securing between 20 and 23 seats. That would make it the second largest party in parliament, according to exit polls published on Catalan television channel, TV3.
Two smaller parties that also back a referendum secured at least 15 seats between them.
The election results set the stage for a showdown with Madrid, threatening Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy with the biggest political crisis since the nation's transition to democracy.
Mr Mas called the snap elections two years early centering his campaign on the promise of a Scottish-style referendum within four years, if his party secured a majority.
Although tonight's exit polls appeared to so far show his CIU party had fallen short of the absolute majority Mr Mas had hoped for - and in fact had secured marginally fewer than the 62 seats it won two years ago - there should be enough parliamentary support to push through a referendum on auto-determination.
Those parties in favour of a referendum are now likely to negotiate some form of coalition.
After casting his vote earlier in the day, Mr Mas, 56, said: "These are the most decisive elections in the history of Catalonia, the most transcendental, in which we all play a role as country, as a people.
Polls show up to 57 per cent of Catalans would vote yes to independence, a figure that has nearly doubled since the start of Spain's economic crisis in 2008.
Anger over "unfair" tax demands from Madrid have fueled separatist sentiment in the industrious and economically important region, as Spain suffers deep economic crisis and unpopular austerity measures.
Many voters believe the region, which boasts a strong cultural identity and its own language and contributes 20 per cent of Spain's economic output, would fare better economically as an individual state within the European Union.
But the drive for independence risks Catalonia being blocked out of the European Union, threatening devastating consequences for Catalan trade.
There is widespread perception that Catalonia's resources have been drained by Madrid with the region of 7.5 million residents paying about 15 billion euros more than it gets back from the national treasury every year.
Mr Mas was forced to go cap in hand to Madrid earlier this year to ask for a 5 billion euro lifeline to help meet operating costs in a region with a debt of 48 billion euros.
He has blamed tax transfers to Madrid as the root of the region's woes and tried to negotiate a new fiscal treaty, a move that was rejected by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
The regional election threatens to set Catalonia further on a collision course with Madrid with the central government warning it will fight any moves that could lead to the break-up of the eurozone's fourth largest economy.
Mr Rajoy, already battling to avoid an international bail-out for Spain and growing social unrest within a nation suffering 25 per cent unemployment, faces a looming constitutional crisis as his conservative government seeks to use all "available measures" to block such a referendum, which is banned under Spain's constitution.
There are fears that any move to independence by Catalonia could be swiftly followed by the Basque Country and force a renegotiation of terms across Spain's 17-semi autonomous regions.
But one of the biggest hurdles ahead is whether a newly independent Catalonia could remain within the European Union and the euro currency. Brussels has indicated that membership would not be automatic and it would have to join the queue. The admission process would likely be blocked by a vengeful Spain.
During weeks of campaigning the region has filled with Catalan national flags in a wave of separatist sentiment.
By 6pm, some 56 per cent of the 5.2 million eligible voters had visited the ballot box, some 8 points higher than in the last regional election two years ago.
"This is an historic moment," said Jordi Casas, 24, as he cast his vote at a polling booth in Barcelona. "The time has come to say 'enough'. Madrid doesn't represent our interests and now we want the chance to decide our own future."
Others have said the campaigning has focused too heavily on independence, while issues of the economy were set aside.
"I think these elections are a disgrace because countries are there to unite, not divide," said 65-year-old pensioner Josep.