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Catalonians Vote for Sweeping New Powers

June 18, 2006

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) _ The wealthy semiautonomous Catalonia region gained sweeping new powers to run its own affairs Sunday, as voters overwhelmingly approved a blueprint that some fear could leave Spain’s government cash-strapped and powerless.

Nearly three out of four voters said ‘yes’ to the plan, known here as the statute, in a binding referendum that culminated more than two years of heated debate.

``The people of Catalonia have written a page in our history,″ said Catalan regional president, Pasqual Maragall. ``We met the challenge we set out for ourselves.″

At stake in the voting in this region, which considers itself a nation within a nation, were a much bigger slice of tax revenues collected in Catalonia, a say in the appointment of judges and prosecutors to courts run from Madrid and, critically, an indirect proclamation of Catalonia as a ``nation.″

The new charter also gives the Mediterranean region control over a variety of areas such as infrastructure, including train services and highways, and work permits for immigrants in the region.

The referendum is binding and the results are final because the blueprint has already been passed by the Spanish parliament.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who supported the new charter, welcomed the results and said Spain’s other 16 regions are free to seek overhauls of their own statutes. Two of them -- the Balearic islands in the Mediterranean and Andalusia in the south _ are already in the process of doing so.

Zapatero has previously said he will offer other regions the same lucrative new tax arrangement that Catalonia has just obtained.

``The people of Catalonia have spoken clearly. They have supported the statute, which is going to give good results for Catalonia and for Spain,″ Zapatero said.

Only eligible voters who are residents of Catalonia could participate in the referendum. About 7 million of Spain’s 40 million people live in the region.

With 99.7 percent of the votes counted, 74 percent of voters approved the charter and 21 percent said no, the Catalan government said. Turnout was 49 percent.

Conservatives opposed the new charter saying it effectively nudges Catalonia away from the rest of Spain, unfairly singles it out for special perks and will encourage other semiautonomous Spanish regions to seek the same.

And this, they say, poses the risk of leaving the Spanish government with no money or power to run the country.

Josep Pique, leader of the Catalan branch of the opposition Popular Party, said it was a bad day for Spain.

``Today we suffered an extraordinary setback,″ he said.

Asun Busquets, a 40-year-old secretary in Barcelona, said she voted ‘yes’ to the new charter because Catalonia deserves more powers to compensate for its economic might _ 20 percent of the Spanish economy.

``It is a way of achieving equality with the rest of Spain,″ she said.

But Gabino Escribano, a 38-year-old industrial technician, said he had voted against the charter because he thinks it was not good for Catalonia or Spain in general.

``I don’t like the idea of Spain breaking up,″ he said. Catalan politicians, he said ``are playing with fire.″

The new powers overhaul a nearly 30-year-old charter that granted Catalonia a large degree of self-rule after the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975 and the end of a regime bent on concentrating power in Madrid.

Other Spanish regions, such as the northern Basque country, have similar deals. But the Catalans and Basques have more self-rule than any other part of Spain.

Nationalists here _ and the Socialist government in Madrid _ say that the Catalan arrangement is outdated, especially given Catalonia’s distinct language, culture and its economic strength.

A poll published May 30 in El Mundo newspaper found 54 percent of Spaniards oppose the new charter and about the same proportion say it should be put to a national vote, not just in Catalonia.


On the Net:

Generalitat de Catalunya: http://referendum2006.gencat.cat

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