Mariano Rajoy banking on election result to end Catalan crisis

Pro-independence parties closer to forming majority than unionists, polls indicate

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


Catalans vote on Thursday in an election that could either bolster or sweep aside the region’s ambitions of breaking away from Spain, after a deeply polarised campaign that has been overshadowed by the legal status of leading candidates.

The election comes after the Spanish government introduced direct rule in the northeastern region in response to an independence drive led by the Catalan government and a controversial October 1st referendum on the issue.

For pro-independence parties, the vote is a plebiscite on those two months of direct rule, which has been implemented relatively smoothly but which they say is an invasion of their region.

The former Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, who was removed from office before fleeing to Brussels with four of his ministers, insists he remains the region’s legitimate leader. His Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCat), running under the Together for Catalonia platform, has sought to use his self-imposed exile to its advantage during the campaign, presenting it as proof of Spanish repression.

“There is a lot at stake: whether [Catalonia] wins or Rajoy wins, if the president is chosen from Catalonia or from Madrid,” Puigdemont, speaking via videolink, told supporters at a campaign rally in Barcelona on Tuesday.

He added that the election is “the second round” of the October referendum.

Puigdemont’s insistence on campaigning from afar appears to have helped his party in the polls, although it looks unlikely to win.

Jailed leaders

He and his former vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, have been competing in recent weeks to be seen as the figurehead of the independence movement. Junqueras, leader of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), is one of four senior independence figures who are in jail in Spain, awaiting trial for sedition and rebellion, meaning his campaign activity has been limited. Nonetheless, polls suggest the ERC could be heading for its first election victory since the Second Republic of the 1930s.

Mr Rajoy, who called this election, hopes his decision will be vindicated by a unionist victory.

“These elections have broken the separatist movement, Catalans have recovered their voice and all Spaniards are going to join them in building a better future,” the prime minister said at a campaign rally on Tuesday.

But Mr Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party (PP), which traditionally struggles in Catalonia, appears to be heading for a humiliating result.

Polarised politics

Polls suggest PP voters have been flocking to the fellow unionists of Ciudadanos, which might end up with the most votes, if not the most seats. A relatively new party which places itself in the centre of the political spectrum, Ciudadanos has benefited from the recent mobilisation of anti-independence Catalans as the region’s politics have polarised.

With so much at stake, turnout is expected to be extremely high, possibly over 80 per cent.

Polls have shown that the pro-independence parties are closer than the unionists to securing a majority. Although the two main separatist parties have moved away from their unilateral approach to secessionism, if a new pro-independence government were to be formed, Mr Rajoy’s snap election would have backfired spectacularly.

However, in a highly fragmented political landscape, it is possible that neither side can form a majority, leading to stalemate and a possible repeat of the election in a few months’ time.