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Monday, June 19, 2006

Catalonians vote for greater autonomy

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Monday, 19 June 2006: 11.50 CET) – In a referendum in Catalonia, 75 percent of the electorate have voted for a greater degree of independence from Madrid.

"The people of Catalonia have written a page in our history. We met the challenge we set out for ourselves," Catalan President Pasqual Maragall said after the Sunday referendum.

Results show that around 75 percent of voters backed the autonomy plans for Spain's largest regional economy, while 20 percent voted against and 5 percent spoiled their votes.

The plan includes giving Catalans more tax revenues and a greater say in how those revenues are spent, as well as more control over airports and immigration, according to Spanish media reports.

It also gives Catalonia control over its infrastructure, including train services and highways, and work permits for immigrants.

Madrid earlier had given in to Catalonia's request to be recognized as a nation by mentioned in the preamble of the new autonomy charter that Catalans regard themselves as a nation.

However, low voter turnout, around 50 percent, slightly marred the victory, and led opposition forces to question the referendum's legitimacy.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero himself had campaigned for a yes vote in the Catalan referendum, with his Socialist party viewing decentralization as a way to create a modern, tolerant state that would help quell separatism.

"Thanks to the new statute, the identity of the Catalan region will be better recognized, Catalonia will be able to govern itself and preserve the richness of its heritage," the Spanish prime minister said in a statement after the referendum.

The referendum is binding and the results are final, according to Spanish news agencies.

On 31 March, Spain's lower house of parliament approved broader political and economic autonomy for Catalonia.

The opposition People's Party (PP) said the referendum would lead to the break up of Spain and demanded the government "hold a referendum for all Spaniards on whether they want Spain to continue being a single nation."

The party had attempted to halt the autonomy move through Spain's constitutional court.

The initial version of the plan was approved by the Catalan regional parliament in September last year, but it was amended to eliminate proposals that would have allowed Catalonia to manage its own ports and airports and to have its own national sports teams.

The Sunday referendum was Catalonia's second, the first being in 1979, in which 88 percent of the electorate voted for more control over health, education, and housing, as well as equal language rights.

Under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the use of the Catalan language was forbidden for almost four decades.

Spain is divided the territory into 17 semiautonomous regions, among which the Basques and Catalans enjoy special status as "historic nationalities." Andalusia and the Balearic Islands have already sought similar deals.

The 2.1 million Basques enjoy the widest self-rule, including greater tax-raising powers than the Catalans were granted in the new reform.

Several Spanish newspapers quoted unnamed officials as saying that Zapatero was planning to begin direct talks with the armed Basque separatist group ETA within days. The group declared a permanent ceasefire three months ago.
(By ISN Security Watch staff, El Pais, news agencies)
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