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Poll hints at separatist-unionist tie in hotly contested Catalan election

Campaign race for December 21 features jailed and self-exiled candidates, and highly motivated voters

The ERC campaign rally on Monday night in Vic.
The ERC campaign rally on Monday night in Vic. EFE

The strangest campaign race in Catalonia’s modern democratic history kicked off on Monday night – one featuring jailed candidates, extremely motivated voters, and polls that show a technical tie between separatists and those who want to remain with Spain.

A voter intention survey conducted by the government research agency CIS suggests a record turnout on December 21: 84.6% of respondents said they will go vote without a doubt. Prior to the last Catalan elections of September 2015, the same survey had predicted a turnout of 68.6%, which was ultimately a much higher 77.4%. If this trend persists, turnout on December 21 could well shatter all existing records in Spain’s democratic history.

Separatist parties together would fall one or two seats short of an absolute majority

“We are expecting record voting figures. We believe that a majority of new voters will support pro-Constitution options,” said a source in the campaign team for the Catalan branch of the Popular Party (PP), in reference to parties that do not support the unconstitutional secession bid in the region.

The survey also suggests falling support for separatist parties, which would lose five seats in the 135-seat Catalan parliament. Meanwhile, the anti-secession party Ciudadanos could get the most votes, although unionists’ combined forces would still fall short of an absolute majority. This creates a very complicated post-election scenario for both camps.

Jailed candidates

Earlier on Monday, a Supreme Court judge had decided to leave two secessionist leaders in pre-trial custody in a criminal investigation into rebellion and sedition over the illegal independence drive. One of these individuals, Oriol Junqueras, is the top candidate for Catalan Republican Left (ERC), and will remain in prison throughout the campaign. Junqueras was the deputy premier of Catalonia until Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sacked the entire regional government under Article 155 of the Constitution, which he invoked to restore the law in the breakaway region.

Oriol Junqueras, the jailed leader of ERC.
Oriol Junqueras, the jailed leader of ERC. AFP

This creates an unprecedented situation that all parties, including unionist ones, seem unhappy about. Campaign managers for non-separatist groups noted that it is difficult to debate when your rival is in jail.

Meanwhile, former premier Carles Puigdemont remains in Brussels, where he fled to avoid legal action over his unconstitutional push for unilateral independence. On Tuesday, Spain’s Supreme Court cancelled European arrest warrants for Puigdemont and four ex- government officials who traveled to Belgium with him.

Getting out the vote

Separatists are hoping to get people out to vote like never before to protest the activation of Article 155. Sympathizers can choose between ERC, the far-left CUP or Junts per Catalunya, a new pro-independence platform headed by Carles Puigdemont.

Unionist parties are beginning to see results after working hard to mobilize non-separatist Catalans

And unionist parties are beginning to see results after working hard to mobilize non-separatist Catalans, who have traditionally been far less motivated to participate in the public sphere than secessionists. In October and November, large crowds marched on the streets of Barcelona to protest the independence drive, and polls suggest that this newfound motivation will also extend to the voting booths.

The CIS survey released on Monday shows that Ciudadanos could attract the most votes (22.5%) on December 21, an unthinkable scenario just a year ago, when separatists appeared to have no rivals at the polls. The Catalan Socialists (PSC) have also jumped in terms of voter intention, while the Catalan PP is losing ground. The survey shows that 45.8% of people who voted for the PP’s Xavier García Albiol in 2015 would now vote for Ciudadanos’ Inés Arrimadas.

Together, the PP, PSC and Ciudadanos would represent 59 to 60 seats in the regional parliament, still far from the 68 required for an absolute majority.

Inés Arrimadas, leader of the Catalan branch of Ciudadanos, might attract the most votes on December 21.
Inés Arrimadas, leader of the Catalan branch of Ciudadanos, might attract the most votes on December 21. EL PAÍS

But the separatist parties together would also fall one or two seats short of this majority, putting Catalunya en Comú-Podem, the Catalan branch of Podemos, in the role of kingmaker. The latter’s position on independence has been somewhat ambiguous, although the official party line is that it opposes unilateral independence but supports a negotiated referendum.

City vs countryside

The CIS poll also shows that rural Catalonia will continue to vote overwhelmingly for separatist parties, while city dwellers are less inclined to do so. The former are over-represented in the Catalan parliament, yet secessionist parties could still lose their parliamentary majority on December 21, after having already lost the popular vote in 2015, when their combined forces made up less than 50% of total votes.

This possibility is enhanced by the fact that, unlike in 2015, separatist parties have been unable to come together in a joint platform. The CIS poll shows 28.1% support for Puigdemont as the new Catalan premier, compared with 16.6% for Junqueras.

Junqueras’ party kicked off the campaign with a Monday rally that introduced its new approach: instead of pursuing unilateral independence like before, ERC now supports “a bilateral negotiation” that will enable Catalonia to achieve independence. To this end, it hopes to get European institutions involved in these hypothetical talks.

English version by Susana Urra.

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