Catalan election campaign heats up in final stretch
People watch deposed Catalan regional president and 'Junts per Catalonia' - JUNTSXCAT (All for Catalonia) grouping candidate Carles Puigdemont speaking via video-conference from Brussels during the final campaign meeting for the upcoming Catalan regional election on December 19, 2017 in Barcelona. Catalan voters will decide on December 21 whether to return the separatists to power or to bring in a pro-unity government, as their region's independence crisis nears its moment of truth. (Pau Barrena / AFP)
(AFP) - Campaigning hit fever pitch on Monday in Catalonia, just three days before a pivotal election aiming to break the deadlock in Spain's worst crisis in decades.
The regional vote on Thursday pits leaders of the wealthy northern region's separatist movement against candidates who want to stay part of a unified Spain, with neither side showing a willingness to back down.
Some of the star candidates are in jail or in exile, while separatists and pro-unity hopefuls are neck-and-neck in the polls -- which are being closely watched by an EU still rattled by Britain's decision to leave the bloc.
Leading candidates have hit out not only against rivals in the opposing camp, but also within their own side of the divide.
From behind bars in Spain, Oriol Junqueras, the leader of Catalonia's main pro-independence party, criticised the region's ousted president Carles Puigdemont for fleeing to Belgium to avoid arrest over his role in the region's independence drive.
"I am here because I never hide from what I do, and because I am consistent with my actions," Junqueras said in an interview with Catalan radio from prison where he is awaiting trial on charges of rebellion and sedition.
His ERC party is narrowly leading most polls, but surveys suggest neither the pro-independence nor the pro-unity camp will win a majority.
Madrid called the vote in hopes of drawing into power a more moderate regional government to deal with in Catalonia, which defied a ban and went ahead with its October 1 independence referendum.
But the elections could still lead to a surreal situation where an exiled or jailed Catalan leader is sworn in.
- Hung parliament? -
In the pro-unity camp, which is also divided, the centrist Ciudadanos party, formed in 2006 to fight Catalan nationalism, has a big edge in the polls over the Catalan Socialists.
But Socialist leader Miquel Iceta on Monday dismissed Ciudadanos's Albert Rivera as "a shoddy democrat" over his claim that choosing any pro-unity party other than his would be a waste of a vote.
"Unlike the leader of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, I wouldn't say that all votes that don't go to me will go to the rubbish," he said at a campaign rally.
Final polls published Friday show ERC and Ciudadanos as favourites to win the most seats the Catalan parliament, which has been dominated by pro-independence parties since 2015.
But neither separatist nor pro-unity parties are predicted to win a decisive majority in parliament, which could lead to lengthy negotiations to form a regional government.
If parties are not able to agree on a governing coalition, Catalonia could face fresh elections early next year, which would prolong political uncertainty in Spain, the fourth-largest economy in the 19-country eurozone.
The Bank of Spain warned Friday that political uncertainly in Catalonia has dented expectations for Spanish economic growth.
It trimmed its growth forecast for the Spanish economy to 2.4 percent next year and to 2.1 percent in 2019, down marginally from its previous estimates of 2.5 percent and 2.2 percent.
- 'Big show' -
Catalonia has been under direct rule from the national government in Madrid since its parliament declared independence on October 27.
In a hearing before a Spanish Senate committee, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria on Monday blasted the independence bid as "post-truth" and "a big show" that cheated its supporters, accusing separatists of knowing all along that their campaign was not viable.
"The secessionist process was the worst episode of disloyalty in the history of our democracy," she told a Senate committee.
"But the worst betrayal was to Catalans who genuinely believed in independence. They were the ones who were led to believe that (their dream) was about to come true, whereas in fact it was all a big show, a 'symbolic' episode," she added.
© Agence France-Presse