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Catalonia gains new, sweeping powers

BARCELONA -- The wealthy semiautonomous Catalonia region gained sweeping new powers to run its own affairs yesterday, as voters overwhelmingly approved a blueprint that some fear could leave Spain's government cash-strapped and powerless.

Nearly 3 out of 4 voters said `yes' to the plan, known as the statute, in a binding referendum that culminated more than two years of heated debate.

``The people of Catalonia have written a page in our history," said Catalan regional president, Pasqual Maragall. ``We met the challenge we set out for ourselves."

At stake in the voting in this region, which considers itself a nation within a nation, were a much bigger slice of tax revenues collected in Catalonia, a say in the appointment of judges and prosecutors to courts run from Madrid, and, critically, an indirect proclamation of Catalonia as a ``nation."

The new charter also gives the Mediterranean region control over a variety of areas such as infrastructure, including train services and highways, and work permits for immigrants in the region.

The referendum is binding and the results are final because the blueprint has already been passed by the Spanish parliament.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain, who supported the new charter, welcomed the results and said Spain's other 16 regions are free to seek overhauls of their own statutes. Two of them -- the Balearic islands in the Mediterranean and Andalusia in the south -- are already in the process of doing so.

Zapatero has previously said he will offer other regions the same lucrative new tax arrangement that Catalonia has just obtained.

``The people of Catalonia have spoken clearly. They have supported the statute, which is going to give good results for Catalonia and for Spain," Zapatero said.

Only eligible voters who are residents of Catalonia could participate in the referendum. About 7 million of Spain's 40 million people live in the region.

With 99.7 percent of the votes counted, 74 percent of voters approved the charter and 21 percent said no, the Catalan government said. Turnout was 49 percent.

Conservatives opposed the new charter, saying it effectively nudges Catalonia away from the rest of Spain, unfairly singles it out for perks, and will encourage other semiautonomous Spanish regions to seek the same.

And this, they say, poses the risk of leaving the Spanish government with no money or power to run the country. Josep Pique, leader of the Catalan branch of the opposition Popular Party, said it was a bad day for Spain. ``Today we suffered an extraordinary setback," he said.

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