Catalans vote in bid to solve independence crisis

BARCELONA –  Catalans flooded to the polls Thursday in a crucial election that could mark a turning point for their region, just two months after a failed secession bid triggered Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

With two hours of voting time left, turnout was exceptionally high in an election pitting leaders of the wealthy northeastern region’s separatist movement against parties that want to remain in Spain.

Catalans on both sides of the divide saw the day as a nail-biting moment of truth, following weeks of upheaval and protests unseen since democracy was reinstated following the death in 1975 of dictator Francisco Franco.

As the evening got under way, anticipation soared over whether voters would again hand victory to pro-independence parties that tried to break Catalonia from Spain, or whether the secessionists would lose the absolute majority they won in 2015.

At 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) turnout was 68.3 percent, five points higher than in the last election – which had seen record participation rates.

In the staunchly pro-independence town of Vic where the sunshine provided some warmth on a freezing day, 49-year-old personal development coach Alex Arroyo said he had never really supported the separatist cause. But he changed his mind “because of the Spanish state’s radical positions” and because of the “violence … on referendum day,” he said, referring to a banned independence plebiscite held on October 1 that led to a heavy police crackdown on voters.

Near the polling station where he accompanied his wife to vote, posters in favour of independence were plastered in the street.

“I don’t have Catalan blood, but on December 21 I will vote to support the republic because I want a free and prosperous country”, one of them read in Chinese next to a poster in Arabic, targeting Vic’s residents with roots abroad.

Supporters of the pro-unity camp also see the election as crucial, with the centrist Ciudadanos expected to win the most seats out of the anti-independence parties.

“The issue for me is that we are all Spanish,” said Gloria Garcia, a telephone operator in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, a working class suburb of Barcelona, wearing the red-and-yellow Spanish flag around her neck.

“Ciudadanos can be the change we need to firmly maintain the unity of Spain.”

But at a school in Barcelona where separatists had set up a voting station on the day of the referendum, 57-year-old painter Xavier Roset said he couldn’t help but think back to the crackdown that sent shock waves around the world. “The memory of that day is stronger than ever. I still feel the impotence and rage,” he told AFP.

Some 5.5 million people are registered to vote in Thursday’s election which is likely to see seven parties winning mandates in the 135-seat regional parliament.

Neither is expected to win a decisive majority, though, which could lead to protracted negotiations to form a government.

The Spanish government called the vote after stripping Catalonia of its treasured autonomy, in response to an independence declaration by the region’s parliament on October 27.

The secession bid was short-lived as Madrid sacked Catalonia’s government and dissolved its parliament.

Crucially, however, even if the pro-independence camp wins, it is not expected to attempt another breakaway from Spain but rather try to enter into negotiations with Madrid. The run-up to Thursday’s vote took on a surreal twist as axed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after the independence declaration, campaigned virtually via videolink.

He had hoped the EU would rally to the separatists’ cause – but that did not happen, with the bloc already rattled by Britain’s decision to leave. “Today we will show, once again, the strength of an indomitable people,” Puigdemont tweeted Thursday.

He is wanted in Spain on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.

His deputy Oriol Junqueras remained in Spain and was jailed along with others pending an investigation into the same charges.

Opinion polls suggest Junqueras’s leftist ERC party could win, though it is unclear whether he or his deputy Marta Rovira would be named president.

Over on the other side, Ciudadanos is close in the polls to ERC and some suggest it could win under Ines Arrimadas, its charismatic 36-year-old leader.

Supporters of Arrimadas cheered “presidenta! presidenta!” as she voted in Barcelona.

At stake in the vote is the economy of a region that has seen its tourism sector suffer and more than 3,100 companies move their legal headquarters away since the referendum.


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