Spain's opposition Party to demand referendum on charter for Catalonia

Spain's main opposition party on Tuesday demanded a countrywide referendum on a proposed new charter for Catalonia that has stirred bitter debate because it would hand wide-ranging self-government powers to the wealthy region. The Popular Party will call for a law to allow a referendum, said Mariano Rajoy, the conservative party's leader.

"In matters of this nature, the people have a right to express their opinion," RAjoy said. "This is no minor affair or something that just concerns one semiautonomous region," he added. "This is something that affects Spaniards as a whole, a reform of the constitution."

The Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on Sunday reached an initial accord on the statute with a major Catalan party, paving the way for the charter's approval in the Madrid parliament. The Catalan charter issue has gripped Spain for months with Rajoy's party making catastrophic predictions that the country will fall apart if too much power is given to Catalonia and other regions seek the same. Evidence of the tension came when an army general was fired for saying troops might be needed to guarantee Spain's unity if the charter went too far. The remarks triggered memories of a failed coup in 1981, just three years after Spain restored democracy following the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.

In the background is a broader debate on the structure of Spain which, following the 1978 constitution, was divided into 17 semiautonomous regions, three of which, Catalonia among them, have distinct cultural identities and languages.

These so-called historic regions suffered severe repression under Franco, who died in 1975. Zapatero favors a new charter, and not just for Catalonia, to help modernize Spain. "All of Spain gains with this accord," Deputy Socialist Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said Monday. "All of us who believe in a plural Spain."

The Catalans and Zapatero, insist it is not a step toward independence. Polls show most people in Catalonia, which has a population of about 7 million out of Spain's 44 million, identify themselves as both Catalan and Spanish. The charter proposes giving increased powers in including tax collection, transport and justice. One of the stickiest points, however, concerns Catalan demands that the region should referred to as a nation, reports the AP. N.U.

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