Catalans back secession: exit poll
Catalans have handed a majority to parties backing independence from Spain, strengthening the region's drive for a referendum on secession in defiance of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, the first exit poll showed.
Catalan president Artur Mas, who called early elections to force the debate on independence, won between 54 and 57 of the 135 seats in the regional assembly for his Convergencia i Unio party, according to estimate by Spanish broadcaster TV3, funded by the regional Catalan government.
The Separatist Catalan Republican Left won between 20 and 23 seats. Two smaller parties that also back a referendum secured at least 15 seats between them.
Rajoy's People's Party won between 16 and 18 seats, compared with 18 in elections two years ago. The Socialists also won between 16 and 18 seats, the TV3 exit poll estimated.
Mr Rajoy, weakened by recession and speculation that Spain needs a European bailout, says a referendum on secession is unconstitutional. While the result strengthened Mr Mas's bid for a referendum, his failure to secure a majority for his party may leave him dependent on separatist parties to govern Spain's largest regional economy.
Mr Mas has pledged a referendum within four years. If there's a majority of pro-independence in parliament, "it would be fraud" to ditch the planned vote, he had said on November 19th. Scotland plans a similar vote in 2014.
Mr Mas has blamed tax transfers to the rest of Spain for the area's financial woes and has pushed for independent tax collection. The region transfers €15 billion, or 8 per cent of its output, to the rest of Spain.
Since elections in 2010, Mr Mas, whose party's pro-business economic policies are in line with those of Mr Rajoy, has governed with 62 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament. Mr Rajoy's PP has backed his two austerity budgets.
The 2013 budget will be one of the new government's first tasks.
The 7.5 million Catalans make up 16 per cent of the Spanish population and last year contributed 19 per cent of the country's economic output. Madrid is the second-biggest regional economy, with 18 per cent of national output.
Catalonia is the country's most indebted region, with total borrowing of €48.5 billion. Moody's Investors Service cut its credit rating to junk on August 31st.
The fallout from Europe's debt crisis has shut Catalonia out of financial markets, making it more dependent on the central government, while at the same time fuelling the campaign to break away.
Mr Mas, who says Catalonia can have a "brilliant" future alone rather than a "grey" one
as part of Spain, was forced to ask Mr Rajoy for a €5 billion lifeline this year.