Polls predict Catalans will say yes to radical plan for devolution
IT'S AN issue that has sharply divided opinion and led to a top army official losing his job, but yesterday, after years of debate, the state of Catalonia was voting on a radical plan for further independence which some believe will eventually lead to the break-up of Spain.
More than five million Catalans were expected to participate in a referendum which, if accepted, will see the north-eastern area become one of the most independent regions in Europe, with a greater slice of its tax revenue, more say over the appointment of judges and prosecutors and control over issues ranging from immigration to the train service.
Most importantly, the proposed new constitutional statute implies that Catalonia is a nation within Spain.
Opinion polls have predicted a resounding victory for the "yes" camp, with El Pais newspaper yesterday quoting a poll forecasting a vote of 74.8 per cent in favour and 21.7 per cent against.
During the 40 years of Francisco Franco's military dictatorship, Catalans saw their language and culture viciously stamped out, with books being burned, all public institutions ordered to speak Castilian (standard Spanish) and any talk of independence leading to arrest.
The move to give Catalonia and the other Spanish regions greater autonomy has been a keystone of prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's socialist agenda.
"It does not make us smaller as a country, but greater and richer in diversity," he has said.
However, opinion polls have claimed that more than 50 per cent of Spaniards outwith Catalonia are against the statute, with many right-wing politicians claiming it will begin the end of Spain as a country and leave Madrid with no-one to govern and no money to govern with.
The opposition Partido Popular (PP) has been campaigning for a "no" vote, with leader Mariano Rajoy claiming the statute was "the beginning of the end of the state Spaniards drew up in 1978".
The conservatives have found unlikely support from the nationalist Catalan group, Esquire Republican de Catalonia (ERC), which also urged voters to reject the new law, with the nationalists claiming it does not go far enough.
Joseph Luis Card Rover, the ERC leader, yesterday warned voters their actions would have "historical repercussions".
Protests outside the world of politics have included football fans refusing to support Barcelona in their successful Champions' League run this year and wine-lovers boycotting Catalan cava.
And in a challenge that brought back memories of the Spanish civil war, one of Spain's leading military men, Lieutenant-General Jose Mena Aguado, was placed under house arrest after claiming in January that the military would have to intervene if Catalonia received too much self-government.
Casting his vote,Pascal Maragall, the president of the Catalan government, hailed the day as "decisive" for the region, adding it was "practically the most important since the day of the constitution and of the first statute".
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