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Catalonia votes while split on secession from Spain

Polls have shown a tight race between pro-independence parties and those that want to remain in Spain. Uncertainty about the outcome — and the color yellow — are marking election day. Anna Gumbau reports from Barcelona.

Yellow has undoubtedly become the color of the season among Catalan separatists.

Abel Perez, an engineer, wears a thick yellow ribbon pinned on his back. He supports the release of the Catalan pro-independence leaders who were jailed following a contested referendum on October 1 on whether Catalonia should secede from Spain. Abel refers to those behind bars as "political prisoners" who are in jail "for defending the mandate given by the people."

The Catalan National Assembly (ANC), one of the leading pro-independence civil society organizations, called on its supporters to wear yellow ribbons as a symbol of protest demanding the release of the imprisoned secessionist leaders. "We had never sold that much yellow cloth," says Lola, the owner of a fabric and sewing goods store in downtown Barcelona. "Many look for yellow scarves; if they cannot find them, then they buy yellow wool from us and make them."

An individual sports a yellow ribbon in support of so-called 'political prisoners' (Anna Gumbau)

An individual sports a yellow ribbon in support of so-called 'political prisoners' — jailed Catalan independence leaders

Read more: Catalan independence supporters in Brussels demand EU attention

Ahead of Catalonia's regional election on Thursday, candidates from the leading pro-independence parties have been among the first to embrace the color trend. 

With yellow now representing the pro-independence political forces, the Spanish Electoral Commission has forbidden banners of this color in public places near the voting stations on election day. The Election Commission also has barred the staff at the polling stations from wearing the color yellow on ribbons and scarves, as they must keep "absolute neutrality" throughout the vote.

A divided electorate

The predominant overarching theme of the December 21 election campaign is the struggle between the roadmap to independence and the continuation of national unity in Spain. Topics related to economics or social rights have been scarce; education and the use of Catalan as the primary language of instruction have been the exceptions, and when these topics came up, they were mostly addressed regarding the effect of independence on these issues.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for the regional election as he triggered Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, sacking the Catalan government and taking direct control over the highly autonomous region. At first, many Catalan secessionists had called the election "illegitimate" — an imposition from Madrid. But now, as university physics student Marta Cervello puts it, "in this election we must show once again we want our republic and that we reject Article 155."

The historic palace that houses the Catalan government (Anna Gumbau)

The palace that hosts the offices of the Catalan president has been empty since Madrid took control of the region and Puigdemont fled to Brussels

"We need to reinforce in the polls what we voted for in the October 1 referendum," Abel adds. "I am hoping for a landslide majority to defend our [Catalan] institutions."

Spanish unionists, in contrast, see the election as "the way to restore stability at last," as Miguel Fores, a bartender, puts it. Thursday will mark the fourth time since 2010 that Catalans have been to the polls to vote in a regional election.

"The pro-independence drift is completely destroying the economy," according to Carla. She works at a bank and told DW she has witnessed "a widespread outflow of capital."

The latest polls predicted a close outcome between pro-independence and constitutionalist forces. The unionist Citizens (Ciudadanos) and the secessionist Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana) look likely to capture the largest number of seats in the regional parliament. Some polls even predict a three-way tie with Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya), the party of ousted President Carles Puigdemont.

Caganers of politicians on display in a Barcelona store (Anna Gumbau)

A shop displays typical Catalan Christmas nativity figures — called 'Caganers' or 'poopers' — in the form of prominent regional and national politicians including Carles Puigdemont (left wth tie) and imprisoned leader Jordi Sanchez (black suit with white shirt) and regional politician Anna Gabriel (with purple shirt)

High turnout, high uncertainty

Pollsters also have predicted a high turnout on election day. GESOP, a Catalan pollster, suggests that it could pass the 80 percent mark. That would be the highest turnout ever for a Catalan election since regional elections began in 1980 — the record, according to official government figures, stands now at 75 percent in the September 2015 election.

As secessionist and unionist forces face the election day neck and neck, uncertainty over the upcoming government is rising. Neither the separatist nor the unionist forces are predicted to secure a majority in the regional parliament — and the leftist, anti-austerity party Catalonia in Common (Catalunya en Comu) is said to hold the key that will disentangle the government formation. The pro-independence bloc has become increasingly fragmented in the last few months.

"A hung parliament is very likely," says David Lopez, an economist, "so I do not think that the election will really unblock the current crisis."

A big banner supporting the release of Catalan civil society leaders on Barcelona streets (Anna Gumbau)

A big banner supporting the release of Catalan civil society leaders on Barcelona streets

David used the day prior to the elections — the so-called "reflection day" — to make up his mind: "I do not support independence, but I do not feel that either [of the unionist forces] really represents me. So I really do not know who I will vote for tomorrow."

Many believe that Thursday's elections will lead to nowhere: "I fear that we will come back to square one after the election," admits Marta.

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