Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) General Secretary Marta Rovira votes in Catalonia's regional elections at a polling station in Vic
Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) General Secretary Marta Rovira votes in Catalonia’s regional elections at a polling station in Vic, Spain December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina

December 21, 2017

By Sonya Dowsett and Sam Edwards

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Deeply divided Catalans voted on Thursday with support for separatists and unionists running neck-and-neck, leaving prospects of a quick end to Spain’s worst political crisis in decades looking slim.

Initial figures suggested turnout was heading for a record high.

Final pre-election surveys published last Friday showed parties backing the region’s independence drive, galvanized in an autumn referendum, could lose absolute control of the regional parliament but might be able to form a minority government.

That would keep national politics mired in turmoil and raise concerns in European capitals and financial markets, though the secessionist campaign has lost some momentum since the Oct. 1 plebiscite that Madrid outlawed.

The independence movement could, however, be dealt a potentially devastating blow if unionists managed to mobilize enough of their supporters to win a majority in the regional parliament.

Opinion polls have shown the next Catalan government is likely to emerge only from weeks of haggling between parties over viable coalitions.

Almost 70 percent of eligible Catalans had turned up to vote by 1700 GMT, against 63 percent in previous elections in 2015. Unlike in 2015, Thursday is a working day and many Catalans may only cast votes just before polling booths close at 1900 GMT.

Some analysts say a high turnout could benefit unionist parties, whose voters are less politically engaged than separatists, but so far it remains unclear.

In Barcelona, the capital of the affluent region of northeastern Spain, voters told of very different expectations.

“I want the independence bloc to win. We are a repressed people,” said Rut Salvador, a 45-year-old shop owner, coming out of a polling station in the working class suburb of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat.

At the same polling station, retired cleaner Manuela Gomez, who voted for unionist party Ciudadanos, said she wanted a strong regional government that would respect the law.

“I want a change, because things are going from bad to worse here and it’s the young people that carry the brunt of it,” she said.

The atmosphere was one of peace and order as long queues of voters formed, in contrast to the Oct. 1 referendum marked by police firing rubber bullets and wielding truncheons to prevent people voting as the central government cracked down on the illegal ballot.

“NORMALITY”

The election has become a de facto referendum on how support for the independence movement has fared since.

Conservative Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called Thursday’s vote after sacking Carles Puigdemont’s secessionist government for holding the referendum and declaring independence.

Rajoy hopes it will return Catalonia to what he has called “normality” under a unionist government or separatist government that will not seek a unilateral split.

“Today is a historical day for all Catalans,” said his health minister, Dolors Monserrat, a Catalan, posting a picture of her voting. “What’s at stake is continuing with social divisions and a decline towards poverty or get back to … economic stability and democracy.”

Puigdemont, deposed by authorities in Madrid following the referendum, urged voters to show they back the movement.

“Today we will demonstrate the strength of an irrepressible people. Let the spirit of Oct. 1 guide us always,” Puigdemont said from self-imposed exile in Brussels.

Another secessionist leader, Puigdemont’s former deputy Oriol Junqueras, took a more conciliatory tone toward Madrid in a written interview with Reuters on Monday, opening the door to building bridges with the Spanish state.

DAMAGE

The independence crisis has damaged Spain’s economy and prompted a business exodus away from Catalonia, its wealthiest region, to other parts of the country.

Direct foreign investment in Catalonia fell by 75 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, dragging down total investment data for the entire country for the same quarter, according to economy ministry data this week.

More than 3,100 companies have moved their legal headquarters out of the region since the beginning of October.

A new separatist majority might further dampen investor confidence.

However, international investors showed few signs of nerves on Thursday, with Spanish debt and the euro in demand. The Madrid stock market lagged its euro zone counterparts, however.

None of the six parties in the Catalan parliament are expected on their own to come close to a 68-seat majority.

An analysis of polling data by the Madrid daily El Pais published on Tuesday found that the most likely scenario was separatists securing a majority with the backing or abstention of the Catalan offshoot of anti-austerity party Podemos.

Podemos backs the unity of Spain but says Catalans should be able to have a referendum authorized by Madrid to decide their future. At the same time, Podemos favors a left-wing alliance of Catalan parties that both back and reject independence.

An exit poll is due as polls close, with the first initial results expected around two hours later and final ones after midnight.

(Additional reporting by Angus Berwick in Madrid, Dhara Ranasinghe in London and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Paul Day; Editing by Julien Toyer, Jesús Aguado and Jeremy Gaunt)

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