CORRECTED-UPDATE 4-Catalan election weakens bid for independence from Spain

Fiona Ortiz and Sarah Morris
Reuters Middle East

(Corrects billion to million in 20th paragraph)

* Catalan separatist parties win a majority in regional


* Main separatist group CiU loses ground as austerity weighs

* Artur Mas may not have mandate to hold independence


BARCELONA, Spain, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Separatists in Spain's

Catalonia won regional elections on Sunday but failed to get the

resounding mandate they need to push convincingly for a

referendum on independence.

Catalan President Artur Mas, who has implemented unpopular

spending cuts in an economic crisis, had called an early

election to test support for his new drive for independence for

Catalonia, a wealthy region in northeastern Spain.

Voters handed almost two thirds of the 135-seat local

parliament to four different Catalan separatist parties that all

want to hold a referendum on secession from Spain.

But they punished the main separatist group, Mas's

Convergence and Union alliance, or CiU, cutting back its seats

to 50 from 62. That will make it difficult for Mas to lead a

united drive to hold a referendum in defiance of the

constitution and the central government in Madrid.

"Mas clearly made a mistake. He promoted a separatist agenda

and the people have told him they want other people to carry out

his agenda," said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the European

Council on Foreign Relations' Madrid office.

The result will come as a relief for Spanish Prime Minister

Mariano Rajoy, who is battling a deep recession and 25 percent

unemployment while he struggles to cut high borrowing costs by

convincing investors of Spain's fiscal and political stability.

Mas, surrounded by supporters chanting "independence,

independence", said he would still try to carry out the

referendum but added that, "it is more complex, but there is no

need to give up on the process."

Resurgent Catalan separatism had become a major headache for

Rajoy, threatening to provoke a constitutional crisis over the

legality of a referendum just as he is trying to concentrate on

a possible international bailout for troubled Spain.

Frustration over the Spanish tax system, under which

Catalonia shares some of its tax revenue with the rest of the

country, has revived a long-dormant secessionist spirit in

Catalonia. Catalans believe if they could invest more of their

taxes at home their economy would prosper.

Mas had tried to ride the separatist wave after hundreds of

thousands demonstrated in the streets in September, demanding

independence for their region, which has its own language and

sees itself as distinct from the rest of Spain.

In a speech to supporters on Sunday night, Mas recognised

that he had lost ground and though CiU is still the largest

group in Catalan's parliament, he said would need the support of

another party to govern and to continue pushing through tough

economic measures.

"We've fallen well short of the majority we had. We've been

ruling for two years under very tough circumstances," he said.

Traditional separatists the Republican Left, or ERC, won the

second biggest presence in the Catalan parliament, with 21

seats. The Socialists took 20 seats. And Rajoy's centre-right

People's Party won 19.

Three other parties, including two that want a referendum on

independence, split the remaining 25 seats. ECFR's Torreblanca

said the Catalan elections were similar to those around Europe

in that economic woes have benefited marginal political groups,

while larger, traditional parties have lost ground.


Mas's bet on separatism may have helped out the big winner

of Sunday's election, the Republican Left, which more than

doubled its seats in the Catalan parliament to 21 from 10,

"He talked about it so much that he ended up helping the

only party that has always been for independence, which is the

Republican Left," said political analyst Ismael Crespo at the

Ortega y Gasset research institute.

A legal referendum would require a change to the

constitution, and Spain's main parties in the national

parliament, the Socialists and Rajoy's People's Party, have

shown no appetite for that.

Mas's CiU had traditionally been a pro-business moderate

nationalist party that fought for more autonomy and

self-governance for Catalonia without breaking away from Spain.

Mas broke with that tradition in September when he made a

big bet on a referendum.

Catalonia, with 7.5 million people, is more populous than

Denmark. Its economy is almost as big as Portugal's and it

generates one fifth of Spanish gross domestic product.

After a decade of overspending during Spain's real estate

boom, Catalonia and most of the country's other regions are

struggling to pay state workers and meet debt payments.

Unemployment has soared and spending on hospitals and schools

has been cut.

Mas was one of the first Spanish leaders to embark on harsh

austerity measures after Catalonia's public deficit soared and

the regional government was shunned by debt markets.

Josep Freixas, 37 and unemployed, voted for CiU but

recognised the party had lost seats "because people have been

really affected by the spending cuts and by the crisis."

At CiU headquarters on Sunday night Freixas carried a rolled

up pro-independence flag - a single star against yellow and red

stripes - that has become a symbol of the separatist movement.

Turnout was very high in the election, 68 percent, 10

percentage points higher than in the previous vote two years


Many Catalans are angry that Rajoy has refused to negotiate

a new tax deal with their largely self-governing region.

Annually, an estimated 16 billion euros ($21 billion) in taxes

paid in Catalonia, about 8 percent of its economic output, is

not returned to the region.

Home to car factories and banks and birthplace of surrealist

painter Salvador Dali and architect Antoni Gaudi, the region

also has one of the world's most successful football clubs, FC


Wary that separatism could spread to the Basque Country and

beyond, Rajoy said this week that the Catalan election was more

important than general elections.

(Editing by Myra MacDonald and Sandra Maler)

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