The leader of Catalonia's largest nationalist party insisted yesterday that plans for the region's referendum on independence from Spain would go ahead despite his party losing ground in Sunday's regional election.
Artur Mas's moderate Convergence and Union (CIU) party's share of the vote dropped by 8 per cent on Sunday, and the number of its deputies in Catalonia's 135-seat parliament plummeted from 62 to 50.
Although still the biggest single political party, CiU's unexpectedly large fall in popularity raised fears backing for the referendum was losing momentum. However, Mr Mas attempted to rebound from CiU's failure to secure voters' approval for the referendum by pointing out that three Catalan nationalist parties as well as a left-wing coalition, the Initiative for Catalonia Greens (ICV), have all spoken out in favour of the plebiscite.
"The referendum has a considerable level of support," Mr Mas said. "There was talk of two-thirds [of the parliamentary deputies needing to support the referendum] and we nearly got it. It's a very clear mandate from the majority of the people of Catalonia. The referendum will take place in the next four years: we will keep our promise."
In his search for a possible coalition partner, he said he would be talking to both the ERC, the left-wing nationalist republican party which doubled its number of seats from 10 to 21, and to the Socialist PSC party – whose total dropped from 28 to 20. But Mr Mas underlined that his plans to hold the referendum would not be on the bargaining table.
With five main parties and several smaller ones, Catalonia has a long tradition of cross-party pacts. But even prior to Mr Mas speaking, a renewal of CiU's intermittent alliance with the centre-right Partido Popular, ferociously opposed to the referendum, had already been ruled out by senior CiU politicians.
"We are in [their] hands", the CiU's second-most senior politician, Oriol Pujol, said when asked about ERC on Monday. As for whether Sunday's elections left Catalonia closer to independence, Mr Pujol responded, "You could say so", although "not as close as I would have liked".
However, the ERC may not allow itself to be wooed by CiU that easily. Its leader Oriol Junqueras confirmed that, in exchange for support, his party would ask the CiU for a change in its austerity policies, starting with lowering taxes and increased pressure on the banks. "If the CiU wants some kind of agreement they have to provide some kind of response," Mr Junqueras said.
An alliance between Mr Mas and the ERC could blow fresh political life into the nationalists' plans for an independence referendum. As the Socialist Party leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba warned yesterday, "The underlying problems have yet to go away... The tension between Catalonia and the rest of Spain has still not disappeared."