December 19, 2012 / 4:58 PM / 5 years ago

Catalan separatists push referendum, Madrid will try to block

4 Min Read

The centre-right Convergence and Union (CiU) leader Artur Mas (L) and Republican Left (ERC) leader Oriol Junqueras sign an agreed alliance at Parlament de Catalunya in Barcelona, December 19, 2012.Albert Gea

BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) - The leaders of Catalonia's two biggest political forces signed a pact on Wednesday to overcome their enormous divide on economic and social issues and defy Madrid by holding a referendum on secession from Spain in 2014.

Growing Catalan separatism is a political headache for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is struggling to keep Spain's finances on track and dodge an international bailout. Vice President Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said on Wednesday the government would try to block the referendum in the courts.

It is still unclear how and when the vote can be legally organized but the deal will have more direct consequences for Spain's push to control regional finances as the two parties have agreed not to implement more spending cuts.

The agreement between the center-right Convergence and Union alliance, or CiU, and the radical Republican Left, or ERC, falls short of a governing coalition but the ERC will support CiU's budget and the two will push together for the referendum.

"We will face a lot of adversaries, powerful ones, without scruples," CiU leader Artur Mas said at the signing. But he said that acting together the CiU and ERC had enough power in the local parliament to push ahead with the vote.

A deep recession and unemployment have stoked separatism in Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain that generates one-fifth of the country's economy and has its own language and distinct culture.

Mas, who has implemented unpopular spending cuts, held early elections November 25 to test support for his new drive for independence for Catalonia. Many Catalans believe that their region will be better off economically if it leaves Spain, saying that too many of their taxes go to help out poorer regions.

In the election Mas's CiU alliance ended up with 50 seats in the local legislature, losing 12 seats, while the traditional separatist party ERC gained 11 seats and has 21.

Together they have an absolute majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.

However, it will be an uneasy alliance. The ERC has opposed CiU's policy of deficit cutting, which has hit social services, schools and hospitals in the last two years.

To win over the ERC, CiU has shown willingness to place levies that will hit the wealthiest Catalans and impose a tax on bank deposits. The ERC has signaled it is willing to make concessions in order to get to the referendum.

Analysts said shared passion for the referendum could make the unlikely alliance hold for two years.

"I'm not naive enough to say it will be easy, but I believe the pact will last through the referendum," said Salvador Cardus, professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

"There is a strong personal commitment between the two leaders for Catalans to express their opinion about their political future."

Constitutional scholars said that there will be many legal twists and turns over the next two years, but that Catalonia will probably be able to hold some form of public consultation, though it may end up being a non-binding or symbolic vote.

Unlike the self-determination effort in Scotland, which has received the go-ahead from the conservative government of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Catalonia will probably have to test various alternatives, said Ferran Requejo, political science professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

Mas's government will likely pass a Referendum Law in the Catalan legislature, Requejo said, which is likely to be struck down by the Constitutional Court.

"Eventually this will probably be played out in an international legal context, beginning with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," he said, referring to the United Nations agreement in force since 1976 that allows for self-determination. "Spain signed that pact."

Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Julien Toyer

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