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Europe

Spain Says Resounding Yes to EU Constitution

Spaniards gave a strong seal of approval to the new European constitution in a Sunday referendum, with four in five of those casting ballots backing the text, exit polls showed.

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Spanish Premier Zapatero got all the "si's" he wanted

More than 14 million people voted, lifting participation to 40-42 percent of the electorate, proving wrong analysts' forecasts which had feared a showing of below 40 percent.

Around 11 million voted in favor of the constitution, which is designed to facilitate decision-making in the expanding European Union and which was approved by EU government leaders last year.

Spanien EU Verfassung Volksentscheid Wahllokal

Election officials at a polling station wait for voters to show up in the northern Spanish city of Alsasua,

Spain was the first of 10 EU states who are called upon to give the proposed a seal of popular approval, with the remaining 15 member states of the bloc, including the largest nation, Germany, preferring parliamentary ratification. In theory at least, all 25 member states must back the constitution for it to take effect.

An Ipsos poll for Spanish TVE television released when polls closed at 8pm (1900 GMT), showed between 77 and 80 percent of those who cast ballots were in favor, while 15 to 17 percent were opposed. Spoiled ballots accounted for between five and six percent.

"A united Europe"

"If the result is confirmed we can say it is very positive for Spain and for Europe," said ruling Socialist Party spokesman Jose Blanco. "Spain will ratify the European constitution (in parliament) and will do so with widespread popular backing."

"The "yes" camp have clearly won by a crushing margin. It's not a surprise," said Pierre Giacometti, Ipsos' director general.

Spanien EU Verfassung Volksentscheid Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, center right, holds his ballot

Amid doom-laden predictions of a humiliatingly low turnout, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero urged citizens not to be apathetic but to use their vote and say yes to Europe. "Today we are taking a decision of great significance for the future of a united Europe and which is very important for Spain also," Zapatero said after casting his own ballot in Madrid. "This vote, in my opinion, means opening the door to a more united and a stronger Europe so I urge all citizens to participate," he said.

Purely consultative

The vote is purely consultative, and parliament will ultimately have to ratify the decision.

In previous referendums -- for political reform in 1976, for a democratic constitution in 1978 and to stay in NATO in 1986 -- turnout ranged from 60 to 78 percent.

Spanien EU Verfassung Volksentscheid Plakat

Two Basque men speak in the northern Spanish town of Pamplona, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005, with a billboard to promote the European Union constitution

Spain has been the primary beneficiary of EU structural aid since it joined what was then the European Community in 1986 but the aid will in future be spread more thinly following last year's enlargement.

Yes votes were high across the board but dipped in the northern Basque region and Catalonia, where moderate nationalists govern at regional level. Five fringe parties opposed the constitution, feeling the text

does not go far enough towards creating a social Europe of the regions.

Beyond Spain's borders

Beyond Spain, parliaments of Slovenia, Lithuania and Hungary have already ratified the text, as has the lower house of the Italian parliament, though the Italian upper chamber still has to approve the text.

Heavy security was on hand across Spain with some 106,000 police on duty according to media reports amid worries that Basque armed separatist group ETA was planning an attack timed to coincide with the referendum.

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