Catalans vote for regional govt, test separatists’ power

PTI, Feb 15, 2021, 8:09 AM IST

Barcelona: The strength of the separatist movement in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia was tested Sunday in a regional election held under tight restrictions to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Salvador Illa, Spain’s health minister until last month, leads the ticket of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party. Illa is hoping to end the hold that pro-independence lawmakers have held in the regional parliament for the past decade.

Polls, however, predict a tight race between the Socialists and the two leading pro-secession parties, the left-wing Republic Left of Catalonia and the centre-right Together for Catalonia. Some 5.3 million people are eligible to vote.

The goal of separatists is to not only maintain their slim majority of the Catalan parliament based in Barcelona but also try to break the 50 per cent barrier of the popular vote for the first time.

The wealthy region, with its own language spoken alongside Spanish, has been the source of Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades since separatists leaders failed in a 2017 secession bid in defiance of court warnings that it was unconstitutional.

Several of those leaders ended up in prison, while others fled to other European countries.

According to pre-election surveys, the Mediterranean region bordering France is still roughly split between those who support the creation of a Catalan state and those want to remain part of Spain.

For Albert Pérez, a 38-year-old architect, the pandemic had no impact on his vote. He backed Together for Catalonia because Pérez wanted to show his support for Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the ineffective breakaway bid in October 2017.

Puigdemont fled to Belgium in its aftermath and has won a European Parliament seat after avoiding extradition.

“It makes me very mad that the Spanish state could just take away our president,” Pérez said after casting his ballot in Barcelona.

But Andrea Marín, a 29-year-old social worker, said the pandemic has increased her desire for a continued union with Spain.

“I voted for the Socialists because I don’t want my vote to go the separatists,” she said. “They are already spending a lot of money on promoting the separatist cause when what matters today is the economy and ending the pandemic.”

With Spain still suffering from a post-Christmas spike in novel coronavirus infections, the vote was held under strict health regulations. Voters must wear face masks, use hand disinfectant and remain at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart while queuing.

Those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 were encouraged to vote between 9 am and noon, while the final hour is reserved for voters who are either infected or under quarantine.

Authorities turned produce markets, auditoriums and even an old bull ring in Tarragona as new polling stations to help spread people out.

Voting went off without a hitch at the vast majority of polling stations, according to authorities, but some citizens tapped for election day duty expressed their concerns about becoming infected.

“You don’t feel safe. You are exposed,” said 35-year-old Miriam Martínez, working at a polling station set up at a produce market in Barcelona. “You are inside a space for many hours, which although it is ventilated, is still closed and you are in contact with a lot of people.(…) But it is what we have to do.”

Virus fears, rainy weather and the relatively calmer political climate compared to the last election in December 2017 tamped down on turnout. By 6:00 pm, turnout was 45 per cent compared to 68 per cent four years ago.

Officials are expected to announce preliminary results around 10:00 pm, but a record number of mail-in votes may mean the full results will take longer than usual.

And a potential future regional government will likely hinge on deal-making between parties that could take days or longer to conclude.

Even if the separatists hold their majority in Catalonia’s regional legislature, there is no guarantee they will overcome the infighting that broke out in their coalition government as the dream of independence remained elusive.

While Together for Catalonia maintains a more radical stance on breaking away from Spain in the short term, the Republic Left of Catalonia has set winning an amnesty from central authorities for the jailed leaders as its top priority for now.

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