MADRID — The depth of Catalonia’s challenge to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy should become clear today, when an early election could help determine whether Spain’s most powerful economic region eventually splits from the rest of the country.
The vote comes at a difficult moment for Rajoy, who stands on the front lines of the euro crisis and is under pressure to decide whether Spain needs more financial assistance through bond purchases by the European Central Bank. Rajoy is also battling record unemployment and protests against his austerity measures.
Artur Mas, leader of Catalonia’s regional government, called the election two years early after failing to convince Rajoy to ease Catalonia’s federal tax burden, and following a massive pro-independence rally in Barcelona on Sept. 11. That turnout by hundreds of thousands of Catalans has galvanized the region, where the distinctive Catalan flag is on display in shops, bars and even bare hilltops.
If he triumphs today, Mas has pledged to hold a referendum on independence, defying warnings from Madrid that this would violate Spain’s constitution.
Initially, Rajoy tried to combat the Catalan challenge by urging greater national unity and solidarity among Spain’s 17 regions. In recent days, however, the prime minister has thrown some of his natural caution to the wind and accused Mas of acting irresponsibly by turning the vote into a divisive plebiscite on independence and thus diverting Catalans’ attention from his own financial mismanagement.
Rajoy told a rally in Catalonia that Mas had achieved nothing except “create divisions, generate conflicts and waste precious time in the fight against the crisis."
Rajoy also rebutted the idea that independence could give Catalonia’s 7.5 million inhabitants greater clout.
“To be somebody in today’s world, the bigger you are the better, and the smaller the worse," Rajoy argued.
Still, in a region with its own Catalan language and identity, the current crisis has helped bring longstanding cultural and economic resentments to a boil.