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Could Catalonia's vote boost Basque independence?

Sunday's regional elections in Catalonia threw new obstacles into its path for independence from Spain. The independence-minded Basque Country hopes to adopt Catalonia's lessons.

By Zach CampbellContributor / November 26, 2012

Two men walks in front of an electoral poster featuring the leader of center-right Catalan Nationalist Coalition (CiU) Artur Mas following Sunday's elections in Barcelona, Spain, Nov. 26.

Manu Fernandez/AP

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Bilbao, Spain

The results of Sunday's local elections in Catalonia will likely have most immediate impact in the independence-minded region and in the halls of Madrid's central government. But their effects within other Spanish communities that harbor hopes for independence may prove just as profound.

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Particularly in the Basque Country, where a 2008 push for a national referendum on the region's political status was declared unconstitutional by Spain's highest court, and where October elections similarly saw voters hand a strong mandate to the region's two separatist parties, many were looking to Catalonia for a tell on how next to proceed.

“For Basques it is very important what the Catalans are doing – in Catalonia a majority is wanting to take steps towards independence,” says Pello Urizar, a Basque parliament member from EH Bildu, the conglomeration of left-leaning Basque separatist parties that last month won the second-highest number of seats in the regional parliament. “We don't yet have as clear of a consensus.”

Catalan voters delivered a mixed message on Sunday night, dealing a heavy blow to Artur Mas, leader of Catalonia's ruling center-right nationalist party CiU, who had hoped for an absolute majority – which would be a strong mandate for a referendum on Catalonian independence. But while the results still clearly supported the collection of political groups pushing for national independence from Spain, the CiU underperformed as its pro-austerity economic policies undercut its pro-independence efforts.

The Basque Country's pro-independence parties hope to learn from the Catalonian election in order to better find a popular balance.

“Both [Catalonians and Basques] are looking for the right to decide our own future, despite our different histories,” says Mr. Urizar. “The results in Catalonia reinforce the fact that the road to independence can't be viewed just as social or just as economic.”

Last month's election in the Basque Country saw a surge in nationalism much like Sunday's record turnout for Catalan nationalist parties, with strong support of separatists on both the left and the right. In October, the center-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and EH Bildu together won over 60 percent of the seats in the Basque Parliament, marking substantial gains for the Basque Country's separatist left.

'The fundamental difference'

Catalonia and the Basque Country are two of Spain's wealthiest communities, and since its financial collapse in 2008 both have been particularly vocal about the effect that austerity measures imposed by Madrid are having on their economies. September and October saw large pro-independence and anti-austerity protests in each region, as well as a large general strike within the Basque Country.

Still, the calls for independence among Basques have been quieter recently, with many pointing to a preferential tax system and an unemployment level much lower than in Catalonia and than the national average.

“The fundamental difference is that Catalonia is much larger than the Basque Country, and that we have much more autonomy,” says Arkaitz Fullaondo, sociologist at the University of the Basque Country and political adviser in Bilbao to EH Bildu.

Much of this autonomy hinges on the Basque Country's unique tax agreement with Spain, which keeps more funds within the community for local use, explains Mr. Fullaondo. “In Catalonia that doesn't exist.”

“The difference is that we manage our own money,” echoes Jose Unzueta, a spokesperson for the PNV, “what we generate goes to the local governments first, with a percentage then later going on to Madrid.”

“The taxes that [Catalans] pay are first sent to Madrid and much stays outside the community,” Mr. Unzueta adds. “They are now rejecting this formula.”

While Mas has not yet said explicitly whether or not the CiU will move forward with a referendum on Catalan independence, he has acknowledged that his party lacks the supermajority he had expected from the election. Any moves towards independence will have to be in concert with the left-wing ERC and Catalonia's other separatist parties, who together control nearly two-thirds of the Catalan Parliament.

It is unclear what the next step is for separatists in the Basque Country, where nationalist parties command a similar majority in the regional parliament. Many will likely be watching for Catalonia's next move to gauge how Madrid will react to the specter of a full referendum.

“What we have in common is we're up against a Spanish state that won't let the people decide their future,” Urizar adds. “We've got to develop the conversation and work towards the conception of a new state that works with right and left.”

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