Saturday September 25, 2021

Catalonia holds key vote under cloud of pandemic

AFP
February 15, 2021

Catalonia voted on Sunday in a close election overshadowed by the pandemic and which Madrid hopes will unseat the region’s ruling separatists more than three years after a failed bid to break away from Spain.

The vote in the wealthy northeastern region could see a high level of abstentions as Spain battles a third wave of coronavirus infections.

Some 5.5 million people are eligible to vote, but polls have suggested a turnout of just 60 percent, compared to roughly 80 percent during the last regional election in December 2017.

To decrease the risk of contagion, regional authorities set up polling station in spacious venues such as around FC Barcelona’s football stadium and the bullring in the port city of Tarragona.

"It’s obvious that it’s not the best moment to hold an election," Sergi Lopes, 40, told AFP at a polling station in Barcelona. "But when you take the metro to go to work every day, you are also being exposed."

The regional government tried to postpone the elections until the end of May because of the surge in coronavirus infections but the courts blocked that move.

Polls opened at 9:00 am (0800 GMT) and will close at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT), with results expected at around midnight.

The final hour of voting will be reserved for people infected with Covid-19 or undergoing quarantine. During this time polling staff will wear gloves, facial screens and protective gowns.

While more than 40 percent of the 82,000 people assigned to help staff polling stations on the day had asked to be recused, all polling stations were operating normally as of noon, said the Catalan government.

Voters entered one by one to avoid crowding, forcing people to stand in lines outside under intermittent rain.

"They will say there is a lot of abstention. It’s raining, there are queues, we are getting wet... it’s not well organised," said Josep Maria Prats, a 59-year-old health worker as he waited to vote in Barcelona. The drop in turnout adds to the uncertainty of the outcome. Polls put the Socialists who govern at the national level neck-and-neck with the two pro-independence parties which have governed Catalonia together for the past five years. Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is hoping this election, the fifth in a decade, could end their rule.

He took part in several rallies to support the Socialists’ top candidate, former health minister Salvador Illa who gained a high-profile for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

But even if Illa’s Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) comes out on top, polls suggest separatist parties together could once again cobble together a ruling majority, despite deep dividions since the failed 2017 independence bid. This would be a repeat of the last election in December 2017 when the stridently pro-unity Ciudadanos won the most seats but was unable to form a government.

The main question then is which of Catalonia’s two main separatist parties will come out stronger -- the hardline JxC -- "Together for Catalonia" -- or the more moderate ERC. 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 the tentative reconciliation Sanchez’s government has sought to broker since coming to power.