Catalonia leader vows to press on with independence vote

Catalonia leader vows to press on with independence vote
Pro-independence supporters gather in front of the Palau de la Generalitat (Government Palace) before Catalonia's President Artur Mas signs a decree calling for an independence referendum, in Barcelona September 27, 2014.

BARCELONA - Catalonia's president Artur Mas vowed Tuesday to press ahead with a vote on independence for the region on November 9, but under a different legal framework after Spanish authorities challenged the plan in the courts.

Catalan leaders agreed Monday that the non-binding vote they had called in the wake of Scotland's independence referendum could not go ahead in its current form.

The announcement, which exposed cracks within the pro-independence movement, was hailed as "excellent news" by Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is fiercely opposed to a ballot on Catalonia breaking away from Spain.

But on Tuesday, Mas vowed Catalonia will "go ahead" with a vote on November 9 under a different legal framework, to get around a ruling by Spain's Constitutional Court which suspended an earlier electoral decree.

"We will call the people to vote on November 9," Mas said. "There will be polling stations open, there will be ballot boxes, there will be voting papers." But he added: "We will have to do it in a different form from what we had planned." Mas admitted that divisions had opened up in the pro-independence movement, but insisted "the real adversary is still the Spanish state," which is fighting to block the vote.

Mas accepted that his earlier electoral decree was no longer valid since it was suspended automatically when the Constitutional Court agreed to consider an appeal by the national government.

But he said an alternative form of vote could be held under "pre-existing legal frameworks" in Catalonia which allow for "citizen participation".

During a meeting of pro-referendum parties on Monday, the Catalan government "determined that the vote can't take place," Joan Herrera, a leader of the small leftist Initiative for Catalonia Greens party, told reporters.

That meeting appeared to have brought to a head a rift between Mas, a moderate conservative nationalist, and the left-wing parties with whom he has joined forces in the regional parliament.

Mas said the issue might have to be settled by regional elections and that a vote on November 9 could be just one step towards that.

"Since the consensus is now broken... that is the definitive means to hold a consultation vote," he said.

"Although the consensus has cracked, I know full well that the real adversary is the Spanish state, which is doing everything possible to prevent the Catalan people from taking part in this consultation."

 Spain ready 'to talk'

The Catalan sovereignty drive has raised a tense standoff between Catalonia and Madrid. Rajoy has fiercely opposed all moves towards a referendum on independence, vowing to defend the unity of Spain as it recovers from years of economic crisis.

But he indicated on Tuesday that he was ready for talks on the issue.

"I think what we have to do is talk. There are of course many of us who sincerely want that," he said.

Catalans have been fired up by last month's independence referendum in Scotland, even though voters there rejected a separation from Britain.

Proud of their distinct language and culture, and accounting for nearly a fifth of Spain's output, Catalonia's 7.5 million inhabitants - 16 per cent of the Spanish population - have long been an engine for Spain's economy.

But many Catalans say they resent the redistribution of their taxes to other parts of Spain and believe the region would be better off on its own.

Spain's recent economic crisis has increased unemployment and hardship in the region and swelled its debts, but in 2012 Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected Mas's request for greater powers for Catalonia to tax and spend.

Catalonia formally adopted the status of a "nation" in a 2006 charter that increased its autonomy, but the Constitutional Court overruled that nationhood claim, fuelling pro-independence feeling.

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