Catalan citizens will head to the polls this Thursday to elect a new government. The vote will pit pro-independence and pro-unity parties against one another. Neither camp looks set to win a clear majority.
In what has been called a surreal election campaign, efforts to convince voters came to a close on Tuesday ahead of Catalonia's much-anticipated regional election.
Recent days saw former regional President Carles Puigdemont holding videolink rallies from self-imposed exile in Belgium. Meanwhile, his deputy, Oriol Junqueras, campaigned from jail, where he is being held on a provisional charge of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement.
The overarching issue of the election is whether pro-independence or pro-unity parties will be able to win a clear majority in a vote that is being closely watched not only in the region but also across Spain and the rest of the European Union. The election has mobilized citizens and high voter turnout is expected. What is not expected is that either camp will win a clear majority.
An end to the crisis?
The region has been in an unprecedented state of crisis since its previous government decided to defy Spain's central government by holding a highly contentious referendum on whether to break away from Spain and declare Catalonia's independence. The referendum has had far-reaching repercussions, not least of all was the heavy-handed police response on the day of the vote, which only served to stoke animosities among all sides. In the wake of the vote, Madrid made use of its constitutional right to dissolve the regional government and strip the Catalonia of its autonomy. This, in turn, has led to an air of political uncertainty in the wealthy northern region.
That political uncertainty has also affected the region's economic future, with 3,000 companies relocating outside Catalonia since then. Moreover, by holding the banned referendum and unilaterally declaring independence on October 27, Catalonia sparked Spain's greatest constitutional crisis in decades.
Currently, opinion polls have both camps in a neck-and-neck electoral race. Addressing a rally in Barcelona Monday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told voters: "These elections will decide whether we return to normality, to the constitution, to reason."
Puigdemont (right) and Junqueras (left) are campaigning to win back power, though have softened their tone
Separatists soften their tone
Oriol Junqueras, who leads the separatist Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left / ERC) party, seemed to back away from his previous demand for independence, striking a much more conciliatory tone.
Speaking from his jail cell, Junqueras said, "I can assure you that we are democrats before we are separatists and that the aim (of gaining independence) does not always justify the means." Esquerra Republicana currently looks set to become the largest separatist party in Catalonia's next parliament.
The party most likely poised to become the largest unity force is Ciudanos (Citizens), yet it, too, looks set to miss achieving a clear majority. Thus, both separatist and union parties will need to win the support of the left-wing anti-austerity party Podemos (We Can).
Many Catalans continue to be concerned about the fact that the issue of independence has overshadowed other more important problems facing the region, such as social issues and the economic exodus that threatens to push the forfeiture of Catalonia's position as a national powerhouse that has attracted a great amount of foreign investment in the past. The prospects of a hung parliament after Thursday's vote will do little to allay such concerns.
js/rc (AFP, Reuters)