Cat­alo­nia vote to split from Spain sets up clash

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Kim Hjelm­gaard

Car­les Puigde­mont in­tends to be­come leader of the world’s new­est in­de­pen­dent state next week. In­stead, he may spark a vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion with Span­ish au­thor­i­ties and wind up in jail.

Puigde­mont, 54, a for­mer jour­nal­ist and pres­i­dent of Spain’s semi-au­ton­o­mous re­gion of Cat­alo­nia in north­east­ern Spain, vowed Thurs­day to press ahead with an in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum on Sun­day de­spite ef­forts by the na­tional govern­ment to block it.

“It’s very clear to me that if I go to prison over this it’s only be­cause of my po­lit­i­cal be­liefs. That would leave Span­ish democ­racy in a very weak po­si­tion,” Puigde­mont told USA TODAY in a phone in­ter­view Thurs­day. “As pres­i­dent, I have the right to call a ref­er­en­dum based on a law that the Cata­lan par­lia­ment has ap­proved. The vote will go ahead.”

The cen­tral govern­ment in Madrid in­sists the vote is il­le­gal and has taken steps to block it. It has seized mil­lions of bal­lots, de­tained 14 se­nior of­fi­cials or­ga­niz­ing the vote, shut down elec­tion websites and de­ployed thou­sands of po­lice to bar ac­cess to vot­ing sta­tions.

The vote is the most se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal cri­sis fac­ing Spain since it re­turned to democ­racy fol­low­ing the death of long­time mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor Fran­cisco Franco in 1975.

The in­de­pen­dence drive is fu­eled by the be­lief that Cat­alo­nia and its tourist-mecca cap­i­tal, Barcelona, give more than they get from Madrid and that the re­gion’s unique cul­ture and lan­guage are not re­spected by the Span­ish state, ac­cord­ing to Puigde­mont.

The wealthy re­gion, where 7.5 mil­lion of Spain’s 46 mil­lion peo­ple live, ac­counts for ap­prox­i­mately one-fifth of the coun­try’s econ­omy. It is one of 17 semi-au­ton­o­mous Span­ish re­gions.

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