Catalan separatists set to keep control of parliament as polls close

Result could prolong Spain’s worst political crisis in decades

Catalans vote on December 21st in an election that could either bolster or sweep aside the region’s ambitions of breaking away from Spain, after a deeply polarised campaign. Video footage: Reuters

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Pro-independence parties are on track to keep their absolute majority in Catalonia’s regional parliament, early results from elections on Thursday showed, potentially prolonging Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

The preliminary results, based on about 40 percent of the vote counted, seemed to confirm an earlier exit poll. Final results are expected after midnight.

A new separatist absolute majority would open a new, uncertain chapter and cast doubts over the ability of the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, to draw a line under a crisis that has damaged Spain’s economy and prompted a business exodus away from Catalonia.

The election has become a de-facto referendum on how support for the separatist movement has fared since Rajoy sacked Catalonia’s government for holding a banned October 1st referendum on splitting with Spain and unilaterally declaring independence.

The separatist parties were seen getting some 71 seats in the 135-seat assembly, the preliminary data showed. The unionist bloc would win about 56 seats while the local offshoot of the anti-austerity Podemos party would get eight seats.

“Spanish government will have to listen”

At pro-independence rallies around Barcelona, supporters awaiting the results expressed hope in the early signs.

“These elections are the closest we’ll ever get to a referendum,” said Joan Garcia, a 28-year-old computer programmer watching the results come in on a giant screen at one event. “If the independence parties win, the Spanish government will have to listen to us.”

Rajoy had hoped the election would return Catalonia to what he has called “normality” under a unionist government or with a separatist government that will not seek a unilateral split.

He has said he would rescind the direct rule he imposed on Catalonia whatever the result, but could reimpose it if a new government again pursues independence illegally.

The exit poll and early results contradict final pre-election surveys published last Friday that predicted separatist parties losing control of the regional parliament and them running neck and neck with unionists.

In such a scenario, the next Catalan government would emerge only from weeks of haggling between parties over viable coalitions – although an effective minority separatist government would still be likely.

“Secession movement not going away”

Analysts said a new absolute majority for the pro-independence camp would demonstrate its capacity to mobilise supporters, even as it has lost some momentum since the referendum.

“What this shows is that the problem for Madrid remains and the secession movement is not going to go away,” Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at the London-based research firm Teneo Intelligence, said.

Turnout on Thursday reached a record high, with more than 83 per cent of eligible Catalans voting.

The atmosphere was one of peace and order as long queues of voters formed, in contrast to the October 1st referendum, which was marked by police firing rubber bullets and wielding truncheons to prevent people voting as the central government cracked down on the illegal ballot.

The deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, urged voters on Thursday to show they back the movement. “Today we will demonstrate the strength of an irrepressible people. Let the spirit of October 1st guide us always,” Puigdemont said from self-imposed exile in Brussels.

The independence crisis has damaged Spain’s economy and prompted a business exodus away from Catalonia, its wealthiest region, to other parts of the country.

Direct foreign investment in Catalonia fell by 75 per cent in the third quarter from a year earlier, dragging down total investment for the entire country for the same quarter, according to economy-ministry data this week.

More than 3,100 companies have moved their legal headquarters out of the region since the beginning of October.

International investors showed few signs of nerves on Thursday, with Spanish debt and the euro in demand. The Madrid stock market lagged its euro-zone counterparts, however. – Reuters

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