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Pandemic puts Catalan independence on backseat in Sunday’s election

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For close to a decade, campaigning for parliamentary elections in Catalonia has been dominated by its push for independence.

But for Sunday’s regional ballot, healthcare and the economy have taken centre stage as candidates, including those representing the outgoing – and increasingly divided – pro-secession governing coalition, spar over how best to contain one of Europe’s worst coronavirus epidemics.

The wealthy northeastern region has the second-highest regional death toll in Spain, where more than 63,000 have succumbed to the disease.

A handout photo made available by Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) shows Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez during the closing day of the Catalan presidential election campaign, in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Catalonia will hold regional elections on 14 February 2021. EPA-EFE/PSC

In 2017, just two months after a chaotic and short-lived declaration of independence thrust Catalonia into the global spotlight and triggered Spain’s deepest political crisis for decades, two separatist parties garnered enough votes in parliament to form a coalition.

This time, with fears over the pandemic potentially leading to record-high voter abstention rates, the outcome is wide open.

The two main separatist parties – centre-right Junts and leftist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya – are neck and neck in opinion polls with the Socialists, whose campaign is being led by Spain’s former health minister.

The separatists hope to top a combined 50% of votes for the first time.

But even if they get to form another coalition – and some surveys have shown the Socialists, who favour continued union with Spain, ahead – a renewed independence push appears off the agenda, at least for the time being.

DIALOGUE, OR CONFRONTATION?

In the aftermath of the events of 2017 – when national authorities first outlawed an independence referendum and, after the region unilaterally declared secession, temporarily took over its government – many of the movements senior leaders are either in jail or have left Spain to avoid prosecution.

“The separatist movement does not have a (clear goal) on the horizon as it did in 2017,” said Joan Esculies, history professor at the University of Vic, north of Barcelona.

The movement has also been weakened by divisions over strategy.

Workers load ballot boxes onto a truck to be delivered among polling stations at a city hall’s warehouse in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. EPA-EFE/Enric Fontcuberta

Esquerra favours dialogue with the leftist central government and has been one of its key partners in the Spanish parliament, while Junts has adopted a more confrontational approach.

The Socialists, the senior party in Spain’s governing national coalition, chose Salvador Illa, health minister in Madrid until two weeks ago, to front their campaign, seeking to benefit from his exposure during the pandemic.

Illa, 54, has embraced a conciliatory tone. He opposes independence but has promised dialogue.

Were he to snatch the region away from the separatists, which would also entail finding coalition partners, that would mark a significant break with history, as nationalist parties have governed Catalonia for 34 of the last 41 years.

“I propose to look forward to the future without reproaches,” Illa told Reuters, also promising an economic revival in a region that suffered an exodus of businesses following the referendum.

The election could also have repercussions in Madrid.

If Junts remains the biggest separatist party, there could be growing internal opposition to Esquerra’s strategy after it handed votes to the Spanish government in exchange for dialogue on the Catalan political crisis. 

Main Photo: People wrapped up in the Catalan pro-independence flags or ‘Esteladas’ and Spanish national flag (C) in Girona, Spain. EPA-EFE/David Borrat

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