Catalonia chooses semi-autonomy in binding Spanish vote

Catalonia has won semi-autonomy from Madrid in a binding referendum Sunday.

Spain's Catalonia region won a degree of independence from Madrid in a referendum Sunday that some observers said eventually could lead to the break-up of the nation.

Nearly 75 per cent of voters in this north-eastern region of Spain approved the plan in a binding referendum that gives Catalonia sweeping new powers to run its own affairs.

"The citizens have decided to open a new era with more strength, more acknowledgment of the Catalan national reality, more areas of jurisdiction, more resources and more capacity to intervene in Spanish and European policy," said Jose Montilla, the Spanish industry minister and the second-highest official in the Catalan branch of the ruling Socialist party.

The new charter, whichis binding, gives Catalonia greater control over its tax revenues and judicial appointments; control over its transportation system and immigrant work permits; greater latitude to deal with foreign powers and, indirectly, a proclamation of Catalonia as a nation.

Catalonia and the Basque region were given a large degree of self-rule after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975. But this charter gives Catalonia extra rights that effectively make it a semi-independent nation.

Conservatives opposed the new charter, saying it creates a semi-autonomous zone that will encourage other semi-autonomous Spanish regions to seek the same rights. It also threatens Spain's tax base and its economic self-sufficiency, they said.

Josep Pique, leader of the Catalan branch of the opposition Popular party,called ita bad day for Spain. "Today we suffered an extraordinary setback," he told the Associated Press .

Gabino Escribano, 38, an industrial technician from the Valencia region, said he voted against the charter because "I don't like the idea of Spain breaking up. [Catalan politicians] are playing with fire."

But Barcelona secretary Asun Busquets, 40, said she voted in favour of the new charter, saying Catalonia deserves greater autonomy because it accounts for 20 per cent of the Spanish economy.

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