Referendum takes Catalonia a step away from Spain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2006, 12:00am


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Voters in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia have voted to seize key powers of self-government in a referendum on greater autonomy from Madrid.

With nearly all of Saturday's ballots counted, 73.9 per cent of voters backed the new statute, while 20.8 per cent voted 'no', with voter turnout at about 49 per cent, official results released by the regional government showed.

The referendum asked the wealthy northeast region, which includes the city of Barcelona, to decide on a text giving it greater control over raising taxes and judicial affairs.

The autonomy text also promotes a wider usage of the Catalan language and gives the region increased say on foreign affairs and control over non-strategic airports and ports.

Conservative opponents of increased autonomy for Catalonia fear it will lead to a violent break-up of Spain.

They seized on the 49 per cent turnout figure to point out that more than half of the region's 5.2 million voters had therefore not voted for more autonomy.

But Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero hailed the 'large support' shown by voters for the text. Catalonians have 'spoken clearly' and 'in a very large majority' in favour of greater autonomy, he said.

The autonomy charter would bring 'greater recognition of the identity' of the region, he added.

The referendum was seen as a crucial test for Mr Zapatero as he seeks to rally support for peace talks with separatists demanding self-rule for the Basque region of Spain.

Before casting his vote, the Catalan regional government's president, Pasqual Maragall, said the referendum was 'the most important day since the constitution was signed in 1978 and [Catalonia's] first statute', in 1979, during Spain's transition to democracy.

After the first exit poll indicated a three-quarter majority vote in favour, the first secretary of the Catalan Socialist Party, Jose Montilla, hailed 'a great day for Catalonia'.

Mr Zapatero had weighed in heavily in support of the autonomy charter and became personally involved in working out a compromise in the Spanish parliament.

Together with the Basque question, the Catalonia vote has become one of the most perilous political issues of his time in power.

Opposition to the charter also came from separatists in the territory. The Catalan separatist ERC party argued the text did not go far enough, and demanded that Catalonia be recognised as a nation.

Separatist leader Josep Lluis Carod-Rovira had earlier called on supporters to vote 'no', 'not only with your hearts, but also with your head and more than anything with your pockets'.

Spain's main opposition Popular Party has warned of the Balkanisation - or break-up - of Spain and said that could be 'the beginning of the end' of the Iberian state.