Catalan election campaign kicks off with independence to the fore

Mas would conduct referendum on sovereignty

Catalonia’s election race kicked off on Friday with regional independence as the major issue for voters and candidates alike.

For the incumbent, Artur Mas of the Catalan CiU nationalist bloc, re-election on November 25 would mean not just four more years in office but support for his promise to conduct a referendum on sovereignty, with or without Madrid’s consent.

CiU is asking for an absolute majority of at least 68 regional representatives to follow through on its plans.

“If we don’t achieve an exceptional majority, we will not be taken seriously,” the premier said at a convention center filled to capacity and plastered with Catalan flags and posters bearing CiU’s campaign slogan,La voluntat d’un poble (The will of a nation). Mas has worked hard to erect himself as the leading figure of nationalist sentiment since September 11, Catalonia Day, when a massive popular march demanded more independence for the region. Since then, continued public statements by politicians, business leaders, artists and even the Catholic Church have polarized society ahead of an election that many view as a turning point.

“This is the most important campaign of our lives; our future and that of our children and grandchildren is at stake,” said regional PP leader Alicia Sánchez Camacho, who presented her party as “the only one at the national level which defends without shame that Catalonia is part of Spain.”

Meanwhile, opposition Socialists criticize what they view as “the enormous smoke screen of independence” which Mas is allegedly using to mask his triple defeat: his failure to reactivate the economy, the lack of alternatives to cuts in social spending, and his failure to negotiate a new "fiscal pact" with Madrid to grant greater revenue-raising powers to Catalonia.

Pere Navarro, the Socialist candidate to the premiership, also accused the conservative Popular Party (PP) of playing the nationalists' game by moving to the opposite extreme, and defended instead a continuation of the federalist system with increased powers of self-rule within the framework of Spain.

Before September 11, Mas' popularity ratings had been plummeting after slashing public services like health care and education in a drive to reduce the deficit. Public anger had reached such a point that on June 15 of last year Mas had to be flown into the regional assembly by helicopter to avoid the protesters.

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