Catalonia poised for hung parliament in bitterly contested election, polls say

No clear winner is in sight and coalition talks are expected following the election results late on Thursday night

Deposed leader Puigdemont rallies supporters from Belgium
Analysis: Regional election unlikely to heal bitter divisions
Catalonia’s election: everything you need to know

Catalans head to the polls on Thursday to vote in an extraordinary and bitterly contested election that will pit secessionists against unionists and determine the next phase of the long-running campaign for independence from Spain.

The election was called by the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, at the end of October when the central government took control of Catalonia and sacked the regional government after it staged an illegal independence referendum and made a unilateral declaration of independence.

Polls suggest Catalonia is set for a hung parliament, with the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left party (ERC) vying for first place with the unionist, centre-right Citizens party.

With no clear winner in sight, Thursday’s result is likely to lead to coalition negotiations to form a government that will either maintain the drive for independence in some form or defend the constitutional status quo.

Tensions remain high in the region following the referendum and the Spanish police’s heavy-handed efforts to stop it. Secessionists believe that Madrid’s imposition of direct rule and the jailing of senior independence leaders could increase support for their cause.

Unionists, however, argue that Catalans are sick of the social unrest and economic uncertainty generated by the unilateral actions of the government of deposed regional president Carles Puigdemont.

The exceptional circumstances surrounding the election are compounded by the fact that Puigdemont has been campaigning from Belgium. He fled to Brussels hours before Spain’s attorney general asked for charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds to be brought against his cabinet almost two months ago.

Puigdemont’s former number two, Oriol Junqueras, has been fighting the election from prison, where he and two prominent independence leaders are being held as part of a judicial investigation into October’s events.

“This is not a normal election,” Puigdemont told supporters via video link on Tuesday evening as the campaign drew to a close.

“What is at stake is not who gets the most votes, but whether the country [Catalonia] or Rajoy wins.”

History, he added, would be watching the Catalan people. Puigdemont has said he will return to Spain if he wins even though he is expected to be arrested as soon as he sets foot in the country again.

Although Puigdemont’s party ran on a joint ticket with Junqueras’s ERC in the 2015 regional elections, they are running separately this time and fractures have begun to appear between the two men, with the latter seeming to accuse the former president of hiding from his responsibilities by fleeing to Belgium.

Puigdemont dismissed the accusations, saying his actions had been consistent with his mandate from the Catalan electorate.

Inés Arrimadas, the leader of the Catalan branch of the national Citizens party, has been forthright in her anti-independence stance, and has vowed to end the secessionist drive and restore social cohesion within 100 days if elected.

Speaking to a rally of more than 2,000 supporters in the Catalan capital on Tuesday, she said voters had to choose between continuing in a “Catalonia that is broken and divided or to begin a new era for all Catalans”.

She added: “On Thursday, we are going to awaken from this nightmare of the independence push.”

Rajoy has also been campaigning in Catalonia even though his party traditionally fares poorly in the region and could also lose unionist votes to Arrimadas’s party.

“We have sacked the [Catalan] government because it was seated on a cascade of illegalities,” he told supporters on Tuesday, urging them to vote to heal the regions wounds.

“Those of us who defend democracy, the constitution and the law are on the good side of history,” the prime minister said.

The Spanish government has rejected calls for international observers to oversee the vote, arguing that it is being conducted under Spanish electoral law, which makes no such provisions. Unlike other autonomous regions, Catalonia has not passed its own electoral legislation.

However, the central government has sought to dispel fears of foreign interference in the vote amid suggestions that some beyond Spain’s borders have been seeking to meddle in the Catalan issue by planting fake news stories.

Spanish officials say they are monitoring the situation closely and point out that the count in each polling station will be manual rather than electronic.

Whatever the elections’s results, which are expected late on Thursday night, they are unlikely to do much to swiftly dispel the fractures, arguments and anxieties that have been thrown up during Spain’s worst political crisis since its return to democracy four decades ago.

Article 155 of the Spanish constitution – which allowed Rajoy to sack the Catalan government and call elections – will remain in force until a new government has been agreed and a new regional president elected by the Catalan parliament.

Much will also depend on the attitude of the pro-independence parties, should they enter office, as any further unilateral action will provoke a tough response from Madrid.

If the different parties in the region fail to form a coalition over the coming weeks, the parliament will be dissolved and fresh elections called.


Sam Jones in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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