Wednesday

24th Jan 2018

Catalonia votes in bid to break independence deadlock

  • The regional elections come two months and a half after a banned independence referendum (Photo: Matthias Oesterle/ZUMA Wire/dpa)

Catalans go to polling stations on Thursday (21 December), in regional elections that were called to put an end to the separatist process but could prolong uncertainties.

For the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, whose government suspended Catalonia's autonomy after the parliament declared the region's independence on 27 October, the vote was to "close the wounds of the break-up" and re-establish a "constitutional government".

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  • In Spain or independent? The question of the future of Catalonia is at the centre of the vote (Photo: Helena Spongenberg)

"Catalonia will win. These elections have already broken the separatism," Rajoy said in a campaign meeting on Tuesday.

The elections were announced at the same time as Rajoy dismissed the region's government and parliament and took control of the administration, under article 155 of the constitution.

For Carles Puigdemont, the dismissed president of the government, who is campaigning from Belgium to avoid being arrested for rebellion, sedition, and embezzlement, the vote is a "second round" for the 1 October independence referendum, which had been declared illegal.

"There is much at stake, whether the country wins or Rajoy - whether the [region's] president is chosen from Catalonia or from Madrid," he told Catalan supporters through a video on Tuesday.

Both Rajoy and Puigdemont, however, could both end up the 'losers' of the election, which mobilises voters against a background of extreme tension in the region. Rajoy's party is likely to win only a handful of seats, whilst Puigdemont has been criticised for 'fleeing' to Belgium.

Some 5.5 million voters are registered, and opinion polls indicate that turnout could be above 80 percent. Voters from abroad registered massively - 85.5 percent higher than for the last regional vote in 2015.

Some 17,000 police officers will be deployed to maintain order during the vote, while the Spanish government has said it was prepared to block cyber-attacks against the voting process.

18 candidates under investigation

As a result of the judicial process against the independence push, some18 candidates are under investigation for their role in the independence referendum, including three who are still in prison.

According to the latest polls, the pro-independence and anti-independence blocs were expected to finish neck-and-neck and each would struggle to form a governing coalition.

Rajoy's Popular Party (PP) is expected to be the smallest party in the new parliament, with four or five seats.

As for Puigdemont's Junts per Catalunya list (JxCat, Together for Catalonia), it could obtain 26-27 seats - not enough to be in a position to lead a new government.

JxCat is a new alliance of candidates from PDeCat, Puigdemont's centre-right nationalist party, with independent candidates.

Contrary to the previous elections, in 2015, PDeCat has not sealed an alliance with the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the main separatist party.

 ERC, whose lead candidate is Oriol Junqueras, Puigdemont's former deputy in the government, could be the main party in the new parliament, with 36-37 seats.


As the absolute majority is 68 seats, ERC would need JxCat, but also the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), a radical left separatist party, which was supporting the former PDeCat-ERC governing coalition.


But the CUP's lead candidate, Carles Riera, said he would be the guarantee against "the temptation" of what he called "autonomism" - i.e. settling for less than full secession - and would not support ERC and JxCat if they wanted to negotiate something else than independence with Madrid.

ERC and JxCat are struggling with the aftermath of their push for independence - which saw banks and businesses transferring their HQs to outside Catalonia, the EU condemning the unilateral process, and Madrid taking over the government institutions.

Puigdemont vs Junqueras

While JxCat's programme is the return of Puigdemont's government and the continuation of the separatist process, ERC is promising to "build a republic from plurality and diversity" - a signal to non-separatists.

And as the two parties failed to agree to run again together, their two leaders now appear as adversaries.



While Puigdemont claims from Brussels to be the region's legitimate president, Junqueras has been in prison since 2 November, under the same charges as Puigdemont, and many see him as a hero who did not flee justice, unlike Puigdemont.

"You are absolutely the best heir to the project we want to build together," said Raul Romeva during a recent campaign meeting honouring Junqueras. Romeva, who was in charge of foreign relations in the dismissed government, spent two months in prison himself.

Neither the exiled Puigdemont nor the imprisoned Junqueras, however, are likely to head a government, or even sit in the parliament.

On the other side of the independence divide, the leading party is Ciutadans, the Catalan branch of the Ciudadanos (Citizens) party.

While Ciutadans is credited with 31-32 seats by the latest opinion poll, its 36-year old leader Ines Arrimadas aims at one million votes in order to be the first party in Catalonia and call the shots for the government.

"We are the only ones with a real chance of beating separatism," Arrimadas said in her last campaign meeting.

'Reconciliation and concord'

She insisted that she wanted to be "the president of reconciliation and concord".

In a recent interview with EUobserver, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera said that Irremadas would propose an agreement with the "other constitutional parties," the PP and the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC), in order to "go back to the rule of law".

The PSC, which could obtain 20-21 seats, according to polls, has said its priority was to beat the separatist bloc. Its leader, Miquel Iceta, has said that he would be in a better position than Irremadas to obtain the support of all non-separatist parties.

"There are only three options after 21 December," Iceta said recently: "a separatist president, Iceta president, or new elections."

Iceta's calculation is based on the presence of a last political group, which positions could make it the kingmaker: Catalunya en Comu (CeC), also called Comuns (Commons), a left-wing coalition that include the Catalan branch of Podemos.

In a chart published on Tuesday, Commons' main politician, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, said that the coalition would be ready to govern with the separatist ERC as well as the anti-separatist PSC, in order to form a "progressive government".

She ruled out any alliance with the conservative PP and the liberal Ciutadans.

Unless voters, in a highly-polarised Catalan society, vote massively for one of the two camps - separatists or anti-separatists - Catalonia could remain without a stable government for some time.

The first session of the new parliament will have to take place before 23 January, and the new regional leader is expected to be inaugurated in February.

The Spanish government has not indicated when it would lift its control over the region's institutions, or what it would do if a new separatist government was put in place.

In the meantime, political uncertainties have taken their toll.

According to figures published on Wednesday, foreign investment in Catalonia fell by 75 percent in the third quarter of this year compared the same period last year.

Thousands march for Catalonia in Brussels

Around 45,000 people marched in support of Catalonia in Brussels to get the EU involved in mediating the conflict with Madrid. 'Europe must realise that it can still play a role in the Catalan crisis,' said self-exiled Catalan leader Puigdemont.

Spain and Catalonia reach point of no return

The Spanish government will suspend Catalonia's autonomy, after the region's parliament declared its independence. The EU does not recognise the would-be state and warns against the use of force.

Spain 'takes back control' of Catalan government

Three days after Madrid adopted measures to counter Catalonia's unrecognised declaration of independence, the question is whether the Catalan ministers will show up to work and who the civil servants will take orders from.

Rajoy and Puigdemont in new showdown

The Spanish PM and Catalan separatist leader said they were open to dialogue, but on different grounds, after Thursday's elections in Catalonia gave a majority of seats to the pro-independence parties.

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