Catalonia is voting in a regional election overshadowed by the Covid pandemic and dominated by the continuing debate over independence from the rest of Spain.
Nine parties are contesting the election but polls suggest a tight race between the unionist Catalan Socialist party (PSC), the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the similarly secessionist Together for Catalonia party.
The election will serve as yet another barometer of the strength of the independence movement, which has set aside festering divisions to present a united front against the resurgent socialists. To date, pro-independence parties have never managed to win 50% of the vote.
Sunday’s election comes almost three-and-a-half years after the pro-independence regional government of the then-president Carles Puigdemont pitched Spain into its worst political crisis in decades by defying repeated warnings from the Spanish government and courts and staging an illegal, unilateral independence referendum.
Voting was marred by a violent and heavy-handed response from police officers sent into the region by the Spanish government to stop the poll.
Three weeks later, pro-independence members of the Catalan parliament made a unilateral declaration of independence, prompting the Spanish government to use the constitution to assume direct control of the region, sack Puigdemont and his government, and call a snap regional election for December 2017.
Puigdemont fled to Belgium to avoid arrest, but nine independence leaders, including the regional vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, were jailed over their role in the failed bid for independence at the end of a trial in October 2019.
Despite the violent clashes sparked by the verdict, the issue of Catalan independence has faded over the past two years amid growing splits between the different separatist factions.
While the ERC favours a more moderate and negotiated strategy to achieve independence, Together for Catalonia has opted for a more confrontational approach in order to maintain pressure on the central government and keep its base motivated.
The region itself remains fairly evenly split over the issue. According to a recent survey, 47.7% of Catalans are against independencewith 44.5% are in favour.
The Socialist candidate, Salvador Illa, has vowed to heal divisions and “stitch Catalonia back together” if elected. Illa, who stepped down as Spain’s health minister to run in the election, has also said improving public healthcare and the reactivation of the economy will be his chief priorities.
Pro-independence parties have responded to the PSC’s strong showing in the polls by agreeing not to make any deals that would help the Socialists into government.
Pere Aragonès, Catalonia’s acting president, who is standing as the ERC’s candidate, has dismissed Illa’s approach as “amnesia” and argues that his party will not “turn the page” while independence leaders remain in prison over their role in the doomed attempt at secession.
But Aragonès says that while taking 50% of the vote would be a boost to the independence movement, there would be no immediate rush towards unilateral independence.
“We’ve always maintained that it’s better to agree on a referendum with Spain,” he told Reuters.
Much will hinge on turnout, with many people reluctant to vote because of the continuing third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
The regional government has set out a timetable to try to minimise the risks. Older people and those with conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus are being invited to vote between 9am and 12pm, while those who have tested positive for Covid, those in quarantine and those who have been in close contact with someone with the virus, have been asked to vote between 7pm and 8pm. The rest of the population is set to vote between 12pm and 7pm.