Jailed or in exile, leaders wrap up Catalan election campaign

2017-12-20 12:44
Protesters hold placards during a demonstration by pro-Catalan independence supporters in Brussels. (Emmanuel Dunand, AFP, file)

Protesters hold placards during a demonstration by pro-Catalan independence supporters in Brussels. (Emmanuel Dunand, AFP, file)

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Barcelona - Campaigning drew to a close on Tuesday in Catalonia's regional election, a potential turning point in Spain's worst political crisis in decades.

The atypical campaign ended with deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont holding a rally via video link from exile in Belgium and another candidate rallying voters from behind bars in Spain.

Thursday's voting pits leaders of the wealthy north-eastern region's separatist movement against candidates who want to stay part of a unified Spain.

READ: Spain blasts Catalan independence drive as 'post-truth'

Voters are highly mobilised and a record turnout is expected, but with pro- and anti-independence candidates neck-and-neck in opinion polls neither side is likely to win a clear majority.

Independence declaration

The election is being closely watched across a European Union still reeling from Britain's shock decision to leave and wary about any breakup of the eurozone's fourth largest economy.

It has inflamed passions not just in Catalonia but across Spain, whose government took the unprecedented step of stripping the region of its autonomy after its parliament declared independence on October 27.

"This is not a normal election," Puigdemont told supporters in a final, virtual rally via video link from self-imposed exile in Brussels.

"What is at stake is not who gets the most votes, but whether the country [Catalonia] or [Spanish Prime Minister Mariano] Rajoy wins" the standoff, he added.

But with their camp in disarray, secessionists would likely put their independence drive on hold should they win Thursday's vote.

"Even if a pro-independence government is formed it will be very cautious how it acts because it won't want to lose the restored authority the Catalan government has," said Andrew Dowling, contemporary historian in Hispanic studies at Cardiff University.

"It won't want to see that suspended again," he added.

The deposed government's failed independence declaration saw more than 3 000 companies relocating from the region, and no country recognising the new "republic".

While opinion polls suggest a narrow lead for the leftist, pro-independence ERC, voters could ultimately hand victory to centrist party Ciudadanos, whose charismatic candidate Ines Arrimadas has campaigned on a fierce anti-nationalist ticket.

She is fighting to replace Puigdemont, who is wanted by the Spanish courts on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.

"We are very close to making our dream come true," Arrimadas told supporters at a rally Tuesday in a working-class district of Barcelona.

"We are going to wake up from this nightmare on Thursday," she added.

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