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Separatists Make Gains In Catalan Elections

Nov 26, 2012
Originally published on November 26, 2012 9:44 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's catch up on a vote in Catalonia, Spain's most economically powerful region. That region gave overwhelming support to pro-independence parties in elections on Sunday. This election is seen as a threat to Spain's political and financial stability, so we're going to talk about this with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. She is in the most famous city in Catalonia, Barcelona.

And, Sylvia, we did say that there were pro-independence parties. Who exactly won these elections?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, all the pro-independent parties won together a big majority, but the ruling party, Convergence and Unity, or CIU, which called an early election in the hopes of winning an absolute majority, was punished. And it lost 12 of its 62 seats. Its leader Artur Mas was a recent convert to independence, but he's also the politician who's inflicted harsh austerity measures on Catalonia.

The surprise result was the Republican left, which has always been stridently pro-independence. It doubled its votes, 20 seats. So the underlying message is that the majority of Catalans are sick and tired of that their taxes are being siphoned off by the central Spanish government, and that they get little in return. They're convinced that independence would help them get out of the worst crisis in their history.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to better understand this crisis, Sylvia. Would you just remind us - Spain, of course, is caught up in the credit crisis that has hit so much of Europe and has an unemployment rate of, what, 20 percent or more?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: Twenty-five percent and its 50 percent for youth. It's a very serious crisis. It's not quite yet as bad as Greece but it's on its way. And even in this very wealthy area - Catalonia, the most prosperous and the big powerhouse of Spain - we see an awful lot of poverty on the streets. You see homeless people sleeping in ATM closures; and these are not immigrants. It's hurting. Unemployment and the poverty level is at 30 percent.

INSKEEP: Trying to understand why independence would be the answer. Do people in this prosperous region feel that the rest of the country is dragging them down?

BYLINE: That's exactly right. And at the same time, you know, Catalonia has its own language and culture that was long repressed during the Franco dictatorship. It long aspired to be a country on its own. But three years of economic crisis have really fueled nationalism and separatism.

INSKEEP: So what are the practical effects here, Sylvia? I'm thinking of Canada where the Province of Quebec has repeatedly had votes on independence, but the country has not come apart. Is it really possible that Spain could come apart?

BYLINE: Well, you know, everybody is very alarmed. Madrid is very alarmed. Catalonia represents one-fifth of the entire Spanish economy. As one newspaper put it: Without Catalonia, Espana would become Expana. Spain, as I said, is undergoing its worst economic crisis since the Civil War and Catalonia is following that. But Catalonia doesn't want to pay anymore for the poorer regions.

It's very possible that they are - Madrid and Barcelona - as I say, are going to be on a collision course because the central government, Madrid, is vehemently opposed to any kind of referendum. They say it's against the constitution.

INSKEEP: So is there any room for compromise here?

BYLINE: It seems very little. There's very little room for compromise because up until now, Madrid has been vehemently opposed to any kind of negotiations with Catalonia. And it refuses even kind of a giving a little bit of more fiscal autonomy to Catalonia. That's why the leader of the ruling party here culled the elections; it's part of a power struggle between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.

It's going to be very hard to see what can happen here. The new government here will be a coalition of two parties - one on the left and on the right - and the only thing they share is independence. They probably will press for a referendum on independence and that's going to only probably dig even more confrontation with Madrid.

INSKEEP: And are there wider concerns for the rest of Europe which, of course, is going through this crisis of which Spain is a big part?

BYLINE: Well, the EU has never had to face the breakup of a member state. And Spain is not alone in raising the problem. There's also Scotland and Belgium that are part of a rising tide of fragmentation within the EU. However EU officials say not so fast, a hypothetical new independent state in Europe would have to face the same membership conditions as all the others. And that includes the veto power of member states - and that means Spain.

It's interesting that when you look at the polls, more than a majority of Catalans want an independent state. But only 37 percent would embrace it, if it means being excluded from the European Union.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Barcelona, in Catalonia which, for now, is part of Spain. Sylvia, thanks very much.

BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.