Tight fight as Catalan election campaigning draws to an end

Tuesday was the last day of campaigning in the Catalan election, a referendum on independence in all but name, and the signs are it’ll be a tight fight to the finish for separatist and unity parties.

The most recent polls predict an inconclusive result on Thursday with the prospect of coalition building and horse-trading ahead.

One candidate who has been fighting the election from afar is Carles Puigdemont – the ousted leader of Catalonia now in self-imposed exile in Brussels. He has used television, radio and live broadcasts as proxies for on the ground campaigning.

If he were to return now he would likely be arrested for his role in October’s illegal independence referendum and declaration of independence.

“Thank you, thank you,” Puigdemont says to the adoring thousands gathered at a recent rally in Barcelona. He is talking directly to them from the Belgian capital and he’s buoyed up by news that his “Together for Catalonia” party has gained ground.

“I am here because my president needs me” says Laura Borras, a candidate who has walked away from her career as a professor to stand for Mr Puigdemont’s party.

“The situation is exceptional. We are working hard for independence. Our aspiration is a free Catalonia.”

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Laura Borras has given up her job to be a candidate in the election

But if she thinks there will be a clear victory for independence or that her ‘president’ will take up his old post in the Catalan parliament she may be mistaken. The risk of arrest aside, he has competitors for the top post including his former deputy Oriol Junqueras who is campaigning from behind bars.

Supporters gathered outside the Madrid prison where Mr Junqueras is being held, facing possible charges of rebellion and sedition.

He rejected standing on a joint independence ticket with his old boss – pushing his Republican Left ERC to become the figurehead for separatism. The perception of Mr Junqueras as a political prisoner is a potent narrative in the election.

“The Spanish state acts violently towards peaceful people” one man told us at a recent rally referring to the aggressive crack down by the police on the day of October’s independence referendum and the jailing of separatist leaders.

A rally for Oriol Junqueras outside Madrid prison
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A rally for Oriol Junqueras outside Madrid prison

Another said: “Here in Catalonia we say Madrid is the factory of independence.”

But the separatist parties and their would-be presidents face a battle to retake power in the Catalan parliament where independence was declared in October triggering the imposition of direct control from Madrid and the snap election on Thursday.

Unlike in the referendum where pro-unity parties and voters stayed away, those who oppose breaking from Spain have been campaigning hard and many are pinning their hopes on Ines Arrimadas of the centre-right Citizens party becoming president.


Catalans have travelled to Brussels to support their 'exiled government'

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The Catalan road trip to Brussels

The party was founded 11 years ago to fight Catalan nationalism and has garnered a strong following from voters who fear the economic impact of independence and the region breaking from Spain and the EU. At a rally this week Ms Arrimadas appeared to triumphalist music and a rapturous reception.

Among those who queued to be at the event was a Charles Ablett who is British-Catalan. He is passionately opposed to independence and convinced the people of the region will see sense. He tells us he asked for police protection to put up anti-separatist posters, such is the strong feeling here.

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Inés Arrimadas of the centre right Citizens Party, which fights calls for independence
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Inés Arrimadas of the centre right Citizens Party, which fights calls for independence

He says: “Independence is a reactionary movement back to tribalism. Nationalism is based on saying who is good and who’s bad and building walls and frontiers and dividing society and that’s a terrible thing to happen to society.”

But an election which was supposed to clearly show what future the people of Catalonia favour is destined to end with further complication if neither side secures the mandate they need to form a government – and it looks like that will happen. Coalitions will have to be built and compromises made.

The Socialists who oppose independence but who would support more autonomy for Catalonia could be influential but, just as in the last government, smaller parties could be king makers.

The hard-left CUP wielded disproportionate influence in Mr Puigdemont’s government which it helped prop up and this time it could be the left’s “Together We Can” which has an ambiguous stance on independence. It doesn’t advocate for it but does support a legal referendum on the issue. So could the party help either side?

Barcelona party candidate Martha Ribas  says people want change, whether they want independence or not
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Barcelona party candidate Martha Ribas says people want change, whether they want independence or not

Barcelona party candidate Martha Ribas tells me: “Everyone sees us like this [as Kingmakers]. We are explaining during this campaign that we will probably have the key between two blocs. That we will have probably make a very important political paper on the future of Catalonia and we are going to play it to make the new government have a priority of social issues.”

She says her party will push for a better financial deal from Madrid for Catalonia and adds: “We need a government which responds to what Catalonia is and this is a mixture of people who want independence and doesn’t want independence. But the majority of the Catalan people want change.”

Easier said than done, getting politicians to work together who are bitterly opposed on the very issue of Catalonia’s existence within the Spanish state.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy forced this election and it was always going to be a gamble for him. He is unlikely to get the absolute mandate he desired for unity. He may not even get a vote which favours independence at all. Added to that, his own Popular Party is looking like anything but in Catalonia. It is behind in the very election he ordered.

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