Spain's economic powerhouse Catalonia took its first step toward independence – and threatened to proceed unilaterally if necessary – in a serious challenge to Madrid's already besieged central government, which is struggling with social turmoil and economic uncertainty.
Catalonia's conservative regional leader Artur Mas moved up local elections to Nov. 25 in an effort to secure the political mandate he needs to press the central government to authorize a referendum on independence. But he said that Catalonia could proceed with a referendum even if Madrid didn't authorize one.
"If we can go ahead with a referendum because the government authorizes it, it's better. If not, we should do it anyway," Mr. Mas told the regional parliament Wednesday. "This is about Catalonia being able to exercise its right to self-determination."
The path to independence would take years, not months, and is still fraught with uncertainty, as secession is not legally possible in Spain or the European Union. But moving up the elections – and the possibility of a protracted standoff with the central government – is threatening to destabilize Spain even further.
The government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called the separatist move a political smokescreen to hide Catalonia's own economic woes, and warned that the move will own compound the country's crisis.
Indeed, while Catalonian politicians debated how to proceed, 64 people were injured and 35 people were detained in Madrid late Tuesday, when protesters tried to approach Parliament in the most violent outburst so far in this crisis. Spain's main opposition party warned the government "was losing control of the country."
Catalonia is one of Spain's most populated regions and its economy is the biggest in Spain, about the size of Ireland's.
But it's also the most indebted region, and its unpopular austerity cuts have been even more drastic than the central government's, especially in healthcare and education. It recently requested more than 5 billion euros from the government's regional bailout fund to avoid defaulting on its debt.
Catalonia has blamed the central government for its own economic pain, because under the current fiscal agreement between Catalonia and Madrid, the region pays more to Spain than it receives. Economists have said that is debatable, as it depends on how the government's contribution to Catalonia is measured.
But regardless, they add, the central government cannot afford to give Catalonia fiscal autonomy during the economic crisis, because Madrid would not be able to finance its spending.
The dire economic situation of both Spain and Catalonia is undoubtedly catalyzing the independence aspirations. Mr. Rajoy refused to consider granting Catalonia fiscal independence last week during a meeting with Mas.
Mas has rejected suggestions that he's simply seeking political gain for himself and his nationalist party by capitalizing on a passionate issue for Catalonians.
"From a political stand point, these elections are not convenient," Mas said, but added that he felt compelled "to give a voice to the people of Catalonia in this historic juncture."
He announced that if reelected, he will put Catalonia on a path to independence, but not seek another term afterward.
Mas asked Spain's biggest political forces, all of which have rejected Catalonia's independence drive, to respect the region's aspirations if his party wins the regional elections. "I ask that you listen to the people. If the verdict of elections is clear, accept it."