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Vote Strengthens Catalonia's Hand in Talks for More Powers

Catalonian pro-independence supporters celebrate in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 27, 2015.
Catalonian pro-independence supporters celebrate in Barcelona, Spain, Sept. 27, 2015.

Europe is not about to get a new nation after secessionists won a majority in the parliament of Spain's Catalonia region but the Madrid government may be forced into concessions on tax and infrastructure.

Even before Sunday's election, a unilateral move by the Catalan separatists to declare independence had been widely ruled out by the Spanish government, European institutions and financial markets.

It became an even more remote possibility when, although the secessionist parties secured an absolute majority in the regional parliament, their breakaway plans won fewer than half the votes cast.

"I hope this will end up in an agreement and that Catalans will obtain a better situation out of all this," said Gloria Calvo, a receptionist from Barcelona as she walked in the streets of the Catalan capital.

"I hope it all turns out well and that the result of the general election in December will help," she also said.

Calvo summed up the mood not only in Catalonia but also in Madrid and the rest of Spain where people want to move on from the tense political battle over independence that has dominated the regional and national agendas for three years.

A recent survey by the state-run Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas showed that only 1.3 percent of Spanish voters saw nationalist tensions as one of Spain's top three problems.

That number is higher in Catalonia, where there is a broad consensus that the Spanish government has failed to invest enough and protect the local language and culture, but no reliable survey puts it at more than 20 percent.

The outcome is that Catalan voters cast a ballot in favor of independence in the belief that it would spur discussions between the two camps and improve their personal lives in the future, said Jose Juan Toharia, from polling firm Metroscopia.

"A big part of those who voted for [the winning separatist group] Junts pel Si [Together for Yes] didn't do it for [obtaining] independence but to give a kick to the Spanish state, say 'no' to its current policies and negotiate," Toharia said.

Spanish financial markets read the outcome in a similar way and rallied on Monday as the risk of a move to secede faded.

Tax Deal

People in Madrid, although they are often opposed to Catalan independence, would not disagree on discussing new arrangements for the wealthy region.

Marcelino Castro, a 64-year-old manager of a driving school, said the vote showed a majority of Catalans wanted to remain part of Spain and they should be offered something.

"It's possible to share services between Spain and Catalonia and also respect its singularity... Maybe it's now time to review its competences," Castro said.

Talks are set to focus on a more favorable tax regime for Catalonia, something Rajoy opposed in 2012, triggering the current separatist campaign.

Catalonia has long asked the central government to give it the same treatment as the Basque Country, which has increased spending powers on the taxes it collects and transfers less of them to poorer regions.

The government in the regional capital Barcelona is also hoping to receive more infrastructures spending and be granted better legal protection for the Catalan language and culture.

More controversial at the countrywide level, but no longer off the table and now openly backed by Spain's left, would be a constitutional reform that would recognize Catalonia as a nation within the Spanish state.

"Where is the President?"

Reaching a deal on those issues may not be easy in the short term. But many say the year-end general election, which is expected to split the vote between at least four big parties and force them into talks, could make it possible.

A centrist party, Ciudadanos, which emerged as the main kingmaker nationally following the Catalan vote, called on Monday for a "new era of dialogue and consensus in Catalonia."

That echoes the positions of anti-austerity party Podemos as well as the opposition Socialists, and left center-right Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on his own in trying to resist the shifting tide in favor of talks over the constitution.

However, hours after his People's Party scored its worst result in a Catalan election in over 20 years, in line with the rest of other local and regional votes so far this year, his position appeared to be weakening.

Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudad anos, the only party Rajoy is seen potentially teaming up with to retain government, said the prime minister was the main person responsible for the separatist parliamentary victory in Catalonia because he had failed to make Spain attractive.

"If Spain functions well then separatism goes down," Rivera said. "But where is the president of the Spanish government? Rajoy shows he doesn't understand what's going on."