Artur Mas, the Catalan president, has called snap elections for 25 November, claiming that “the time has come to assert the right to auto-determination”.
The decision comes two weeks after about 1.5 million people marched through Barcelona demanding independence, and days after the Madrid government rejected Mr Mas’s demands for a new funding model for the autonomous region.
The elections come half-way through his four-year mandate – Mr Mas won the 2010 elections with 38 per cent of the vote, the third time he has stood for president. He denied he was calling early elections to secure political advantage while his chief rival, the Catalan socialist party, is in serious disarray and the pro-independence Esquerra Republicana is eaten up by in-fighting.
After making the announcement yesterday, he said he would not stand again “once Catalunya had decided on its national objectives”, adding: “Elections are almost always a time of confrontation between political parties, but the times we are living in demand a higher awareness of the necessities of the state and a large dose of self-sacrifice.”
He said he was not calling an election to consolidate his power but “so that the people can decide what sort of future they want as a nation”.
Mr Mas is presenting the elections as a plebiscite on self-determination – he avoids the word “independence” – but it is not clear what his likely victory will signify, as his CiU party, which has dominated the Catalan political landscape for nearly 35 years, has never favoured independence.
It is said that within CiU a battle is raging between the pro-independence wing and the old guard who prefer to play kingmaker in Madrid in return for greater regional autonomy.
Only a few days ago, the CiU said there needed to be a referendum on whether Catalonia should become a “new European state”, but in an emotional speech to the regional parliament yesterday, Mr Mas rejected a referendum, saying that “the voice of the people must be heard in the ballot boxes”.
While the nationalist tide is running high in Catalonia, propelled in part by Spain’s disastrous financial situation, it is by no means certain that the Yes camp would prevail in a referendum.
While close to half the population favour independence, the other half is either against or agnostic – and this half lives mainly in the greater Barcelona area, which has the highest concentration of immigrants and people of Spanish descent. Under the terms of the Spanish constitution, such a referendum would be illegal.
The Madrid government said its response would be “firm and calm”. Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the vice-president and chief government spokeswoman, said: “I ask whether this is the time for division when what we need to do is find a way out of the hole we’re in. I’d like people to ask themselves how they think we’re going to attract investment in Spain, and in Catalonia in particular, if it appears that we don’t know where we are now or where we will be in future.”
Jaume Collboni, a Catalan Socialist party spokesman, said Mr Mas was calling the elections as a distraction from “the failure of his economic, social and national policy”. Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, leader of the right-wing Catalan Partido Popular, said Mr Mas was “leading the Catalan people to the abyss”.
In a speech full of rhetorical flourishes, Mr Mas told parliament: “This parliament that emerges from these elections faces an historic mission, possibly the most complex, important and risky of the past 300 years, in which we have more to gain than we stand to lose.”