Independence party makes huge gains in Catalan elections

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The Independent Online

The cry of "independence" rang through Catalonia yesterday after the spectacular advance in Sunday's regional elections of a party calling for freedom from Spain.

The Republican Left (ERC) increased its seats from 12 to 23 in the autonomous parliament - not enough to rule, but decisive in deciding Catalonia's next government. The separatist mood has sent shudders through Madrid.

The long-governing conservative nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) and opposition Socialists each lost to the ERC. But the CiU emerged with most seats, 46 in the 135-seat parliament, enabling it to claim victory with some conviction.

The socialists never even removed their celebratory vintage champagne from the fridge, having failed for the seventh time since 1980 to surpass the conservative nationalists. They won 42 seats, almost equalling the CiU in votes, but were disadvantaged by constituency boundaries. The CiU's new young leader Artur Mas proved there is life after the retirement of the canny Jordi Pujol after 23 years as regional president. But Mr Mas is restraining his glee, for the same reason that the socialist leader and former mayor of Barcelona, Pasqual Maragall, has not yet thrown in the towel. Either man might enter the gothic magnificence of the government house in Barcelona. Or neither. It depends on which party the Republican Left leader Josep Lluis Carod favours, and he was not saying. He did call for a grand coalition, "a government of national unity" - something that neither main party wants.

Republican Left was the only party to savour their cava - Catalonia's champagne - in the early hours yesterday. "Carod president, Catalunya independent!" called ecstatic supporters, conscious they had the power to transform Catalan history. Mr Carod, 51, is no firebrand, but believes a Catalan state, associated with Spain but equal in Europe, is realistic. Ten new states heading for EU membership all have smaller economies than Catalonia, and six were not separate countries 20 years ago, he argues. But he sets no timetable, and makes no Eta-like call to arms.

Rather he seeks to extend the autonomous powers that Catalonia already enjoys, and bend any future coalition ally towards the goal of freedom from Madrid.

"We've had enough submission," he said this week. Catalonia, proud of its language and culture, controls most areas of public life except defence, foreign policy and taxes, under a statute with Madrid drawn up after the death of the dictator Franco in 1975. But as Spain's richest region, it feels short-changed by contributing disproportionately to poorer regions. Prosperous Catalonia wants to wrench from Madrid remaining powers it claims are Catalan. All main regional parties agree that the statute is outdated. As Mr Carod said yesterday: "The one we have is an instrument of the past, and it will lead us nowhere". Hence the apparent logic of a coalition. But Catalan Socialists and CiU, bitterly divided along class lines, have little in common. Mr Maragall urged a left-wing pact between Socialists, ERC, and the green-communist Initiative for Change that won nine seats. Mr Mas too is courting ERC, with his own party's nationalist credentials. All parties have been swept by the more strident nationalism of a post-Franco generation of Catalans. Fired by ideals of anti-globalisation, environmental sustainability and desire for peace, they strain against controls from the centre. And Madrid fears the worst. Mr Carod's plans match those by the Basque nationalist government for independence. But Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government condemns it as the "mutilation" of Spain.