Catalonia takes decisive step towards secession

Independence from Spain was the key issue in yesterday’s regional elections

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy urges 'calm' after regional elections in the Catalan sparked fears of a secession. Video: Reuters

 

Catalan nationalists celebrated last night as pro-independence parties won a regional election which was treated as a plebiscite on secession from Spain.

The Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) coalition won the most seats in the Catalan parliament and with the support of the leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), it has a majority – the stated aim of separatists to push ahead with their independence project.

Many of those at the Drassanes language school in Barcelona, one of the voting stations, appeared conscious that this was arguably the most significant election in Catalonia’s modern history.

“I’m 48 years old and I’m totally apolitical but this is the first time in my life I’ve voted,” said Jordi Costa, an unemployed metalworker, who cast his vote for Ciudadanos, a right-leaning party which opposes independence and which came a strong second.

“People of my age didn’t vote before, but this year we’re voting, we’re fed up.” He added: “I’m fourth-generation Catalan, but I think independence would be a huge mess.”

Catalan regional premier Artur Mas had called the election earlier than scheduled, describing it as a last resort after repeated attempts to stage a formal referendum on independence had been blocked by the central government in Madrid.

His Junts pel Sí coalition was made up of established pro-independence politicians and grassroots figures from across the political spectrum. Their stated aim throughout the campaign was to gain a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, giving them, they said, a mandate to push ahead with their independence drive.

Extra voting slips

Many of the voters emerging from voting stations in central Barcelona had cast their vote in favour of secession.

“If we get independence, we’ll have more money,” said Lara Fontclara, a 19-year-old nursing student, who voted for CUP. “We pay out more money than any other region and we get less back than any other.”

“Our schools are in a terrible state – if you go down to Andalusia, the schools have computers for the kids, healthcare is better. We haven’t been respected; we need to govern ourselves.”

She added: “This is like when the United States wanted independence from England!”

The strength of pro-independence feeling was apparent throughout the election campaign. The estelada, the red-and-yellow striped flag with a star on it which symbolises independence, has been hanging from many apartment windows in the Catalan capital and nationalists frequently sang the regional anthem, Els Segadors, at rallies.

The degree to which the Catalan independence debate has divided people in the region was apparent as Mr Mas voted in Barcelona.

A small group of unionists chanted, jeered and waved a Spanish flag as he cast his vote. Mas appeared unruffled and his comments to the media made a characteristic nod to the global audience.

“Today is a great victory for democracy,” he said. “Democracy has won in Catalonia and it has also won in Spain, in Europe and in the world.”

Other issues

“We’re voting to decide who should govern us, we’re not just voting on independence,” said Rubén García, a graphic designer. He voted for Catalunya Sí que es Pot (or Catalonia yes we can), a leftist coalition backed by anti-austerity party Podemos which broadly backs territorial unity but supports a negotiated referendum on independence.

“The only thing that’s been debated is independence and there hasn’t been a debate about how Catalonia’s resources should be spent,” he added.

Catalunya Sí que es Pot, like the Socialists, had a disappointing night. Meanwhile, the governing Popular Party (PP) saw its seats in the Catalan parliament halved.

A group of 15 foreign parliamentarians observed the day’s proceedings at the invitation of the Catalan regional government, including Colm Keaveney of Fianna Fáil.

He told The Irish Times that what he had observed had been “significant, transparent, very civic-focused”. He added: “There was a strong undercurrent of celebration and determination.”