Spain: Catalan villages vote for independence

AP News
Posted: Dec 13, 2009 6:44 PM

A smattering of villages and towns in rich, independence-minded Catalonia gave a lukewarm embrace to the idea of breaking away from Spain in a rare vote Sunday at the grassroots level.

Skeptics called the nonbinding vote an exercise in futility for the proud region centered around Barcelona, which boasts a distinct cultural identity and accounts for about one-fifth of Spain's economy but says it get does not get enough in return.

But an umbrella group of civic organizations behind the referendum saw it as a way to assert the distinct identity of what they regard as a country within a country and to pressure politicians in Madrid and Barcelona to pay more attention to them.

The vote was held in 167 pro-autonomy hamlets, villages and towns in Catalonia, home to about 7 million people.

In the end, with more than 90 percent of the votes counted _ people as young as 16 and immigrants were also allowed to take part -- 94 percent favored independence, and turnout was about 25 percent, according to Ana Arque, a spokeswoman for the referendum organizers.

A massive 'yes' vote had been widely expected because the referendum was staged in pro-independence towns. The turnout figure was about half that of a vote in 2006 on a statute that gave Catalonia broad new powers of self rule.

Organizers of Sunday's vote had set a goal of 40 percent turnout. Still, they played up the result as a success.

"The people of Catalonia have chosen to form an independent state," said Carles Mora, mayor of a small town that held a similar refendum back in September.

Catalonia, along with the Basque country, is a prime example of a region oppressed under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, which made it a crime to speak in their regional languages in the interest of promoting Spain as a unified country run from Madrid.

Since Franco's death in 1975 and the restoration of democracy, Spain has gradually granted a large degree of self-rule to regions such as Catalonia.

Catalonia won even more self-rule in 2006 with the new autonomy charter, gaining control over judicial, infrastructure and other issues and an indirect proclamation of Catalonia being a nation.

But conservatives immediately challenged the charter, and Spain's highest court is now believed to be close to issuing a verdict that might strike down parts of it. Critically, it is said to oppose the idea of Catalonia being a nation.

Angst over this pending decision was a major reason for Sunday's vote. Organizers say they plan a similar one in Barcelona and other big cities early next year.

Anti-Spanish sentiment in Catalonia can run very high. Next week the regional parliament will debate a bill to ban bullfighting. That probably has as much to do with concern over cruelty to animals as it does with a pastime associated with traditional Spain.

Sunday's paper ballots were counted by the organizers themselves, with monitors from places such as Corsica, Quebec and Northern Ireland, which have their own independence movements.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Friday "in all honesty, initiatives like this lead nowhere."

School coach Maria Teresa Montserrat, 54, said Sunday she voted for independence as a way to assert the distinct identity that many Catalans feel. "We are not better or worse than anybody else, we're just different," she said.

Beside her, townsfolk grilled "butifarra" sausages, a regional specialty, and drank white wine out of miniature wooden barrels.

Metal worker Enric Flores, 49, sheltered from the cold and rain under the stone arcade of a street market in the town of L'Arboc, population 5,000. Loudspeakers blared Motown songs in Catalan.

"Seen from the outside, life here looks very good, but we feel discriminated against," Flores said. Although the vote is nonbinding, "the government in Madrid must take this referendum into account," he added.

Antonio Duran, 53, a traveling salesman, dismissed the whole thing as nonsense.

"Catalonia is an important region of Spain, but that's all," he said.