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Independence drive falters for Spain's Catalonia

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ALAN CLENDENNING and CIARAN GILES | November 26, 2012 02:50 PM EST | AP

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MADRID — Voters in Spain's Catalonia region favored the right to decide on possible independence but split their ballots between fractious parties, making the prospect of secession less likely than ever.

Artur Mas, leader of the northeastern region's ruling center-right coalition, had sought an absolute majority in Sunday's vote to get a mandate for an independence referendum that the central government says would be unconstitutional. But his Convergence and Union party lost seats while a fierce rival, the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia, made big gains.

Mas told reporters Monday night he would not resign, was still committed to pushing for a referendum that he thinks will happen within four years and would try in the coming weeks to cobble together a coalition majority.

"We detected a sociological change in Catalonia supporting sovereignty," he said. "The people have spoken and now the situation is clearer and more complicated."

Spain's central government in Madrid predicted Monday that the result will mark the end of a secession vote drive that has distracted authorities who are trying to prevent Spain from being forced into a bailout.

While the two Catalonian parties share the goal of holding the referendum, they are far apart on almost everything else and analysts said it would be very difficult for them to form an alliance.

"They agree on the issue of the right to decide the future of the Catalan people, but on economic issues they have opposite positions," said Carlos Berrera, a communications professor at the University of Navarra.

In power for the past two years, Convergence and Union has introduced painful austerity cuts in Catalonia that have been vigorously opposed by Republican Left.

Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that includes Spain's second-largest city of Barcelona, is one of the areas suffering the most in the country's 4-year-old economic crisis, which has left unemployment at 25 percent.

Catalonia is responsible for around a fifth of Spain's economic output and many residents complain that the central government in Madrid takes in more tax money from the region than it gives back. But now Catalonia is the most indebted region in Spain and has had to seek a (EURO)5.4 billion bailout from Madrid.

The central Spanish government, which fiercely opposes the idea of an independence referendum, was quick to praise the vote.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo called the outcome "a good result for Catalonia, Spain and Europe, though not for Convergence and Union."

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria described the election as "a serious blow for Mas" but one that "put the priorities in order."

"Voters want governments focusing on the crisis and creating jobs," she added.

In all, the ruling party in Catalonia lost 12 seats, going down to 50 in the 135-seat regional legislature, with the Republican Left coming in second with 21. Five other parties split the remainder, with most of those seats going to parties opposed to independence.

Republican Left leader Oriol Junqueras said voters had issued a "mandate to hold a referendum," but he ruled out forming a coalition with Convergence and Union.

Junqueras said his party would continue to demand that Mas' government change its austerity policies, calling for lower taxes for most and for banks and the rich to shoulder more costs. But he didn't rule out working with Mas on specific issues.

Jordi Matas, a political science professor at the University of Barcelona, said Mas might try to seek a limited deal with the Republican Left only on the referendum and other issues that falls short of a coalition.

While pro-referendum parties won a majority in the vote, Matas said the result of a hypothetical referendum is too hard to predict.

Mas' only other options for coalition partners are the center-right Popular Party or the center-left Socialist Party, but he would have to drop his push for a secession referendum because both vigorously oppose such a vote.

The outcome of Sunday's election produced such a political stalemate that it's impossible to predict whether a renewed drive for a secession referendum would work, said Angel Rivero Rodriguez, a political science professor at Madrid's Autonomous University.

"Right now we are not sure about the state of the Catalan independence process," he said. "We don't know if this new situation is going to accelerate the process or hide it again indefinitely."

Catalonia has had a long history separatist sentiment, especially since its own language and cultural traditions were harshly repressed by Gen. Francisco Franco's military dictatorship from the end of Spain's Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975.

This fall, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to ease Catalonia's tax load. And some 1.5 million people turned out in Barcelona in September for the largest Catalonian nationalist rally since the 1970s.