Catalonia calls off independence vote – but doesn't throw in the towel

The Catalan government canceled plans Tuesday to hold a referendum on independence from Spain amid growing pressure from Madrid. Catalans are frustrated by economic stagnation across Spain and their lack of autonomy.

Manu Fernandez/AP
Catalonia's regional president Artur Mas gestures during a press conference at the Generalitat Palace in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.

The Catalan government canceled plans Tuesday to hold a referendum on independence from Spain amid growing pressure from Madrid.

Despite the setback, Catalan leader Artur Mas vowed to take a more incremental approach towards independence, one that falls within the boundaries of Spanish law. His commitment reflects a resurgence of secessionist sentiment among Catalans disillusioned by economic stagnation across Spain and Madrid’s refusal to grant them more autonomy.

Mr. Mas announced Tuesday that the Nov. 9 vote would be replaced by a looser – and largely symbolic – “consultation of its citizens” on the same day, Reuters reports. He said that holding such an informal ballot would not violate the Spanish constitution.

Mas said legal and political opposition from Spain’s central government made a referendum impossible. The country’s Constitutional Court decided unanimously last month to hear the government’s case against the referendum, a decision that suspended the vote while the court deliberated.

Although far from a full-on breakaway vote, the consultation could serve as a useful tool to gauge Catalan support for independence. Mas called it a “preliminary” ballot, the Associated Press reports, insisting that an official vote would still happen later.

"It means there will be polling stations open, with ballot boxes and ballots," Mas said. "It will depend on the people for a strong enough participation to show that people here want to vote."

The questions on the ballot will remain the same: should Catalonia be a state, and, if so, should it be independent?

In its court challenge, Madrid said an independence vote would violate a constitutional provision under which only Spain's national government can hold such referendums.

Even if the Constitutional Court were to allow an independence referendum, the vote would be non-binding – unlike the one held in Scotland last month.

Although the Scottish referendum failed, it jolted other independence movements, from Tibet to Flanders. But few aspiring secessionists have moved as quickly as those in Catalonia, who called for a referendum last month.

Catalonia, which has 7.5 million people, is a wealthy region in northeastern Spain with its own language and culture, as well as Barcelona FC, one of Europe's most storied soccer clubs. With an economy roughly the size of Portugal’s, the Guardian reports, Catalonia has long been an engine of the country as a whole. Such economic disparities have fueled long-held enmity over Madrid’s fiscal policies. As the Guardian reports:

A growing number of Catalans resent the redistribution of their taxes to other parts of Spain and believe the region would be better off on its own.

The 2008 real estate crash, which triggered a five-year economic downturn across Spain, and a 2010 decision by Spain’s constitutional court to water down a 2006 statute giving the region more powers have added to the growing pressure for secession.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the cancellation of the Catalan vote was “excellent news,” the New York Times reports.

“Spain is a democracy and an advanced country, and to comply with the law is an obligation of everybody,” Mr. Rajoy said Tuesday at an economic conference in Madrid.

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