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Catalan town votes for independence from Spain

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MADRID (Reuters) - Inhabitants of a small Spanish town voted Sunday for the region of Catalonia to secede from Spain in a poll which, though symbolic, adds to pressure on the minority Spanish government as it struggles to combat recession.

The referendum in Arenys de Munt came as Spain’s socialist government braces for a court ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court to overturn a special statute setting out the boundaries of Catalan autonomy within the Spanish state.

Many Catalans, including Catalan members of Spain’s ruling Socialist Party, feel that such a ruling would ignore legitimate aspirations of a people with hundreds of years of separate identity and which retains its own language.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero needs to pass tax increases to pull Spain’s budget deficit back towards European targets, perhaps without the support of Catalan nationalist lawmakers in parliament.

More than 96 percent of votes in Arenys de Munt were in favour of Catalonia becoming an independent state within the European Union, a municipal spokesman said.

“This is a triumph for democracy,” said local mayor Carles Mora, who got round a court order forbidding municipal authorities from organising the non-binding vote by holding it outside official offices. About 40 percent of the town’s 6,500 eligible voters participated in the referendum.

Leading members of Catalonia’s independence movement converged on Arenys de Munt for Sunday’s vote, sensing an opportunity to push their claims up the political agenda.

A few dozen members of the far-right group the Falange. a powerful force during Spain’s 1930s Civil War but now marginalised and weak, waved Spanish flags and made fascist salutes from behind a large police cordon protecting them from a much larger jeering pro-independence crowd.

Catalonia, in common with other Spanish regions, already enjoys extensive autonomy over areas including education and health. As in the Basque Country, successive regional governments have promoted local language and culture in recent decades, angering Spain’s Castillian heartlands.

Editing by Louise Ireland