Catalonia's separatist leader 'ready' to call fresh elections

Barcelona (AFP) - Catalonia's outgoing separatist leader Artur Mas said Tuesday he was reluctantly "ready" to call fresh parliamentary elections, with the Spanish region's secessionist faction unable to agree on who should lead a new government after winning September's polls.

"I'm ready -- against my will, this is not what we wanted and it is not what I want -- but I'm ready to sign the decree to convene elections," he told reporters in Barcelona as Saturday's deadline to form a new government drew dangerously close.

Calling fresh polls -- which would be the fourth since 2010 in Catalonia -- would be a setback for the region's secessionist drive, which has been a major thorn in the side of Madrid.

In September, Mas's "Together for Yes" secessionist alliance -- helped by the more radical, far-left separatist CUP party -- won a majority of seats in the 135-seat parliament in the wealthy, 7.5-million-strong northeastern region.

But the honeymoon was short-lived as "Together for Yes", which won 62 seats, battled with the CUP to form a government.

Despite more than three months of intense negotiations, the small party that got 10 seats refused to give Mas the backing he needs to head up Catalonia again, resenting the austerity measures he implemented and corruption scandals linked to his party.

"I don't know if they realise the magnitude of the mistake they are making," Mas told reporters.

But he said there was still time to reach an agreement of some kind before the deadline at midnight on Saturday.

"I want to say this very clearly though: 'Together for Yes' has already made so many proposals that we cannot make any more," he warned.

The CUP has said it could back another candidate, but Mas's CDC party -- which is part of 'Together for Yes' -- has ruled that possibility out.

The only option that remains is to convince a few CUP lawmakers to break rank and support them.

If they fail to do so, parliament will be dissolved after Saturday's deadline and Mas will call the elections.

- 'Running out of steam' -

"It's a risk because right now there are 72 separatist lawmakers," said Ferran Requejo, politics professor at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

"It could be that the result will be worse, because voters have seen that three months of secessionist majority in parliament has not resulted in a government agreement.

"That has resulted in the separatist factions running out of steam."

Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has fiercely opposed Mas's independence drive, said new regional elections in Catalonia were inevitable.

"I honestly don't know what (Mas) can do in the next five days after everything that has happened," he said during an interview with radio Cope.

"I believe that the best that could happen is that Mas drops his independence drive. Since I don't believe that is possible...the best outcome would be if elections were held," he added.

One of Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions with its own language and customs, Catalonia already enjoys a large degree of freedom in education, health and policing but it wants more, particularly where taxation is concerned, complaining it pays more to Madrid than it gets back.

A 2010 decision by Spain's Constitutional Court to water down a statute giving Catalonia more powers has added fuel to the fire and caused support for independence to rise.

Polls show that most Catalans support a referendum on independence but are divided over breaking from Spain.

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