Separatists in Catalonia won a large majority in regional elections, but a poor result for the biggest local nationalist party complicates a push for a referendum on independence from Spain.
A deep recession and high unemployment have fueled separatism in Catalonia, which represents one-fifth of Spain’s economy, piling political uncertainty on top of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s economic problems.
Catalan voters on Sunday handed 87 seats, almost two-thirds of the local parliament, to four different parties that want a vote on secession.
However, voters also punished the movement’s figurehead, Catalan President Artur Mas. His Convergence and Union alliance remains the biggest party in the local parliament, but lost 12 seats, leaving Mas to form an alliance to govern.
Mas had tried to ride the separatist wave after hundreds of thousands demonstrators hit the streets in September demanding independence for Catalonia.
Yet Mas has only recently backed Catalan independence and while he stirred up enthusiasm for the idea, in the end he drove voters into the arms of parties seen as more genuine backers of the separatist cause.
With a population of 7.5 million people, Catalonia has an economy almost as big as Portugal, but is laboring under a load of debt and Catalans think too much of their taxes go to the rest of Spain.
A Catalan plebiscite on breaking away from Spain could trigger a constitutional crisis and the central government has vowed to block it.
In Madrid, where the ruling People’s Party and the opposition Socialists have said they will block a Catalan referendum, political leaders read the Catalan result as a failure for a referendum.
Catalans traveled home from around Europe to vote in the election, which had a high turnout of 68 percent, 10 percentage points higher than two years ago.
No matter what the election outcome was, the revival of Catalonia’s long-dormant separatist movement will eventually force Spain to rethink the model it chose after former Spanish leader Francisco Franco’s rule ended in the 1970s.
The 1978 Spanish Constitution gave self-governing powers to Spain’s 17 autonomous regions.
Catalonia shares some tax revenue with the rest of Spain and many Catalans believe their economy would prosper if they could invest more of their taxes at home.
The growing Catalan perception that the tax system is unfair has been a big reason that the independence movement has flared up after several decades of dormancy.
Enthusiasm for independence could subside as voters contemplate the economic realities of a split from Spain, especially if the price to pay is leaving the EU.
With the election over, Mas will have to turn back to coping with Catalonia’s economic troubles.
After a decade of overspending during Spain’s real-estate boom, Catalonia and most of the other regions are struggling to pay state workers and meet debt payments.
Catalonia has 44 billion euros (US$57 billion) of outstanding debt and the ratio of its debt to its GDP is 22 percent, the highest in Spain.
Mas was one of the first Spanish leaders to embark on harsh austerity measures after Catalonia’s public deficit soared and the regional government was shunned by debt markets. He has also had to take billions of euros in bailout funds from the central government.