dissabte, 12 de setembre de 2015

The Wall Street Journal: 'Hundreds of Thousands Rally for Independence in Catalonia' #usa #europe #news #politics

Demonstrators wave a huge pro-independece Catalan flag as they march Sept. 10 in Vilafranca del Penedes, Spain.

By DAVID ROMÁN

BARCELONA—Hundreds of thousands of pro-independence demonstrators clogged the streets of Barcelona on Friday, launching a campaign to elect a separatist majority to Catalonia's regional parliament this month and set the stage for an attempted split from Spain.

The huge rally underscored the capacity of a unified separatist movement to mobilize its followers—in a close election with high stakes for all of Spain—against an array of pro-union parties, whose banners were scarcely in evidence here on the wealthy region's annual national day.

Clad in Catalonia's yellow and red colors, and waving striped separatist flags, demonstrators poured into the city on buses and trains to join Barcelona residents, lining Meridiana Avenue for miles. Some formed human pyramids, a Catalan folk tradition. They pointed cardboard arrows toward the Catalan seat of government, an admonishment to regional leaders to stay the course toward independence.

"There's over a million people here asking for their voices to be heard," said Carlos Acin,63 years old, who traveled from Lleida, a small city to the west, to take part. "You can't simply ignore that."

Barcelona police said about 1.4 million people joined the gathering, held under the slogan "Let's start building a new country." The Spanish Interior Ministry estimated the crowd at between 520,000 and 550,000 people.

ENLARGE

Demonstrators wave a huge pro-independece Catalan flag as they march Sept. 10 in Vilafranca del Penedes, Spain. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Catalonia's president, Artur Mas, has cast the Sept. 27 election as a referendum on independence. If pro-separatist parties win a majority of parliament's 135 seats, he said, his government will start drafting a constitution and creating "structures of a sovereign state," including a tax agency with expanded powers, with the goal of achieving full statehood within 18 months.

"I am willing to go to the end of this process if we have the majority of seats," Mr. Mas told reporters Friday. Otherwise, he added, the cause of Catalan independence, which he embraced in recent years, would be set back.

Several polls published this week show that two pro-independence coalitions could win a narrow majority of parliament seats.

That prospect, in a region that produces a quarter of Spain's exports, has cast uncertainty over the country's political future and nascent recovery from a punishing recession. It poses a major challenge to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy just three months before he seeks to hold on to his job in Spain's national election.

ENLARGE
A man wears a pro-independence Catalan flag as he takes part in celebrations of National Day. Catalan separatists held mass rallies to kick off campaigning for a regional election that the local government has billed as a de facto referendum on breaking away from Spain. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Independence activists in Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people, say the Spanish government drains the region of taxes and doesn't respect its language and culture. Officials in Madrid say Catalonia reaps significant economic and political benefits from being part of Spain, a country of 46.4 million.

Mr. Rajoy's government says it would consider any step toward independence unconstitutional and move to block it.

In an effort to sway Catalan voters, Mr. Rajoy´s government has warned that a breakaway Catalan state would have to leave the European Union—a message reinforced in recent days by British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr. Rajoy's conservative Popular Party is planning a vigorous get-out-the-vote campaign in Catalonia. It is telling voters that the region needs a leadership that will tackle everyday problems—a contrast with the Mas campaign's exclusive focus on the goal of independence.

"If you're a Catalan, you must vote so that others won't vote for you," Mr. Rajoy said Wednesday.

That message appears to resonate with voters such as Manuel de la Cruz, a 44-year-old Barcelona resident who was out for a stroll Friday near the monument to 18th century Catalan nationalist leader Rafael Casanova. He said he wouldn't join the swelling ranks of demonstrators around him.

"I don't want independence," Mr. de la Cruz said. "All we need is a better tax deal with the central government so we can use more of our own resources."

The Popular Party and others opposed to Catalan independence made no attempt to muster a counter-demonstration Friday; they held separate small rallies. The Popular Party leader in Catalonia, Xavier García Albiol, told supporters that Mr. Mas had allowed independence forces to monopolize the annual national day celebration.

Parties running against Mr. Mas are divided on their approach to the Catalan independence drive. While Mr. Rajoy's party takes a hard line against concessions to Mr. Mas, the Socialist party favors a constitutional reform that would make Spain a federal state and give Catalonia more autonomy rather than outright independence.

Podemos, a leftist party and rising force in Spanish politics, favors allowing Catalans to hold a referendum on independence, as the U.K. allowed Scotland to do last year.

It was the Spanish government's refusal last year to allow Catalonia to hold a formal vote on independence that prompted Mr. Mas to call this month's election, a year ahead of schedule, and define it as a referendum.

Polls indicate that pro-separatist parties could fall short of a majority of votes but still win a majority in parliament. That is because Catalan electoral law favors rural regions, where lawmakers can be elected with fewer votes than in big cities—and where sentiment for independence is stronger.

Speaking to international reporters Friday, Mr. Mas and other pro-independence leaders said they would prefer a majority of votes but wouldn't be deterred as long as they control parliament.

"If after the election anyone in the international community has any doubt [about our legitimacy], we'll be happy to hold a referendum on independence under international monitoring," said Oriol Junqueras, leader of one of the largest parties in the separatist alliance.

Write to David Roman at david.roman@wsj.com