A great lover of the sea, Catalonia’s president Artur Mas is riding a wave of pro-independence feeling in the region, where nationalists want to break away from Spain.

The storm of separatist sentiment has transformed the 58-year-old economist from a moderate nationalist into the unlikely helmsman on Catalonia’s voyage for statehood.

His critics elsewhere in Spain have accused him of flirting with sedition and even the left-wing parties with whom he is allied in the Catalan parliament have voiced mistrust of him. Those who know him say these are all calculated risks.

Mas keeps in his office a ship’s wheel given to him by his father, inscribed with nautical advice: “Cool head, hot heart, firm grip, feet on the floor.”

Observers say it is this typically Catalan blend of passion and calculation that brought him to the head of the independence movement at its most crucial point in decades.

On Saturday Mas put his own political future at stake by signing a decree formally calling a vote on independence for Catalonia for November 9.

Madrid has branded the move unconstitutional and vowed to block it immediately by appealing, raising the risk that he may have to stake his presidency on early elections.

Pro-independence surge

Bespectacled with neatly brushed hair and a smooth manner, Mas cut a moderate figure as Catalonia’s president until the surge of pro-independence feeling swept him up.

When Catalans chose him as their leader in 2010, the polite man from Barcelona was steering a course for greater autonomy for the rich northeastern region, but not outright independence.

But in September 2012, at the height of Spain’s economic crisis, more than a million Catalans filled the streets of Barcelona demanding the right to self-determination.

“I understood that the people were on the march demanding for the first time loud and clear that the right to decide and to be a new state within Europe be made a reality,” he was quoted as saying in an interview by the author Teresa Pous.

Days after the big march, Mas went to Madrid and asked the national government to give his heavily indebted region greater powers to raise and spend its own taxes. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sent him away frustrated.

Mas responded by calling a snap election in Catalonia, campaigning with the promise of a referendum.

Unholy alliance

His right-leaning coalition CiU groups traditionally moderate middle-class nationalist parties. Mas, the son of a businessman, was seen as its archetypal leader. But when his CiU coalition lost its parliamentary majority in the snap election, he was forced to strike an unholy alliance with the left-wing nationalist party ERC and work for a consensus between diverse pro-independence forces.

“His support for independence does not come from his family background. He makes no secret of that,” said Pous, who published a series of interviews she carried out with Mas.

“But in the course of his daily political life, his powers of analysis helped him to grasp that without statehood Catalonia would get smaller and smaller,” she added. “It was not a whim on his part. It was a carefully thought-out decision.”

Sense and passion

A slick orator, Mas has carefully weighed his words throughout the campaign, while switching between his fluent Catalan, Spanish, French and English in speeches and interviews.

Unlike the all-out separatists of the ERC, he has avoided using the word “independence”, speaking instead of a “national transition process”.

Catalans often talk of their national character as a volatile balance of “sense” and “passion”, remarks Mas’s biographer Pilar Rahola. “Artur Mas prefectly represents the duality of sense and passion,” she said.

In this case, it may lead him into a tight spot. Before signing Saturday’s decree, Mas vowed to let Catalans vote but also promised to respect Spanish law.

If Madrid blocks his planned “consultation” on independence on November 9, he has hinted he may resort to another snap election, putting his leadership on the line.–AFP