Under cloud of pandemic, Spain's Catalonia to hold key vote

·3-min read

More than three years after a failed bid to break away from Spain, Catalonia goes to the polls Sunday for an election that Madrid hopes will unseat the region's ruling separatists.

But Sunday's vote could see a high level of abstentions as Spain battles a third wave of the pandemic, with regional authorities ramping up restrictions to slow soaring case numbers after the Christmas holidays.

And in a highly-controversial move, people with the virus as well as those in quarantine will have the right to cast their ballots in person in the last hour before voting closes at 1900 GMT in the wealthy northeastern region, home to 7.8 million people.

Of the 82,000 people who have been asked to help staff polling stations on the day, nearly 31.000 have asked to be recused, despite pledges they will receive full protective suits.

One is Rodrigo Sanchez, a 53-year-old banker whose wife has cancer and was due to go for a chemotherapy session just three days before the vote.

The doctors "told us it wasn't a good idea that someone who lives with a sick person be exposed for so many hours" to "a situation of potential infection", he told AFP.

The electoral authorities turned his request down but Rodrigo is thinking of just not turning up, even if that exposes him to legal penalties.

"You have to decide what's more important -- the money or your life ... But my wife's life comes before everything," he said.

- Separatists eye majority -

The regional government insists it has put in place all the necessary health and security measures, laying on antigen tests for voting staff, providing spacious and well-ventilated polling stations and measures to ensure social distancing.

A polling station "is really much safer than going in the metro or into an office to work," insists Ismael Pena Lopez, the regional government's top election official.

When the polls open at 0800 GMT on Sunday, about 5.5 million voters will be eligible to cast their ballots, although turnout is not expected to exceed 60 percent.

Beyond the ongoing health crisis, the vote has been overshadowed by a bitter split between the separatist factions following the failed independence bid of 2017 that sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

The Catalan government has been dominated by separatists since 2015 and Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is hoping that this election, the fifth in a decade, could end their rule.

Although he himself came to power in 2018 thanks in part to support from Catalan separatists, Sanchez has not hidden his desire to remove them from power, a difficult goal to achieve.

Even today, his minority government still relies on them to pass legislation.

Former health minister Salvador Illa is spearheading the Socialists' bid to unseat the separatists in Sunday's election, with polls putting his PSC (Socialist Party of Catalonia) neck-and-neck with the pro-independence parties.

- Repeat election? -

But even if the PSC comes out on top, polls suggest none of the parties will win an outright majority of 68 in the 135-seat regional parliament, meaning the eventual outcome will depend on deal-making.

Forming a government "will probably be quite challenging" and prospects of a repeat election "should not be discarded," said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at political consultancy Teneo.

Although the separatist parties remain deeply divided, polls suggest the hardline JxC -- "Together for Catalonia" -- and the more moderate ERC could once again cobble together a majority to rule anew.

The main question is which of the two will come out stronger.

In the previous election in December 2017, JxC was ahead, forming a 70-seat coalition with ERC.

Should the tables be turned in ERC's favour, it would likely ease tensions and help along the tentative reconciliation Sanchez's government has sought to broker since coming to power.

"An ERC executive would maintain the current ambiguous approach of criticising Madrid rhetorically but not adopting any unilateral measures. In contrast, a government headed by JxC would probably lead to a more confrontational stance," said Barroso.