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Catalans turn out in record numbers to vote in critical regional election

Catalans turned out in record numbers on Thursday to vote in key elections they hope will offer a solution to the independence crisis, amid heavy security and searing tensions over the secessionist project.

Preliminary results indicated that more than 82 percent of Catalonia’s 5.5 million voters had cast ballots in the snap poll, aiming to restore an autonomous government after almost two months of direct rule by Madrid. 

Out in force too were Catalan and national police, some 17,000 of whom were deployed to guard polling stations and state buildings. The vote was monitored by an extraordinary contingent of 55,000 observers, as both sides tried to guard against the possibility of fraud or voter intimidation that could swing the knife-edge race. 

As the first votes were counted, an election day poll indicated that pro-independence forces could pull off the narrowest of victories. The phone survey conducted for Barcelona-based paper La Vanguardia indicated that the centre-right unionist Ciudadanos would become the single largest party, with between 34 and 37 seats. But overall secessionists were predicted to take 67 to 71 seats; 68 being needed for an absolute majority.

In the febrile political environment, and with memories of the police violence on referendum day still fresh, there had been fears that the vote could lead to confrontations. But in the end these proved unfounded.

Polling supervisors start the recount following the poll station closing during the Catalan regional election in Barcelona on December 21

Credit:
 JOSEP LAGO/AFP

Casting his vote in the Infant Jesus school in the Gracia neighbourhood of Barcelona – the scene of one of the worst standoffs on October 1 – former Catalan president Artur Mas hailed the air of calm at the polls.

“Always when the people want to vote it should be done without repression, in a peaceful way,” said Mr Mas, who as Carles Puigdemont’s predecessor began the independence drive. 

But the anger at the Spanish government felt by many independence supporters was still palpable. Laura Iniesta, a 62-year-old artist voting in Gracia, said she was voting to reinstall Mr Puigdemont as president, complaining that Madrid had “no right” to remove Catalonia’s elected leader.

“We feel very attacked by the Spanish state,” Ms Iniesta said, accusing the “ever more fascist” government of Mariano Rajoy of choosing force over dialogue. 

“I was here (on October 1), I saw them hitting people,” she told The Telegraph. “I forgive them for it, but I will never forget it.”

Voters cast their ballot for the Catalan regional election at a polling station inside the hall of the University of Barcelona on December 21

Credit:
 Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images Europe

Anti-independence sentiment is also strong. At the Cal Maiol school in the Sants neighbourhood of the city, Carlos Gonzales, a 64-year-old painter, said he was voting for the Left-wing, pro-Union PSC in order to halt the secessionist project that he felt was bringing Catalonia to its knees. “Right now it’s a disaster, so many businesses have gone. If it continues this way we will end up in ruin,” he explained.

Despite the thirst for a way out of the impasse, yesterday’s vote could instead unleash months of further chaos if neither the secessionist or unionist blocs secure an absolute majority. 


The key to power could be left in the hands of En Comu-Podem, a Left-wing alliance formed of Barcelona mayor Ada Colau’s Catalunya en Comu, and the local wing of Podemos, led nationally by Pablo Iglesias. With a predicted 10 or 11 seats, they hope to wield that leverage to form a new, cross-bloc governing coalition that can offer an alternative path out of the impasse. 

Ms Colau called for reconciliation as she cast her vote yesterday, urging all parties to respond constructively whatever the result, “so that the country is not divided in two”. 


But forming a government of any hue may well be a complicated task. Several parties have already vetoed alliances with each other, while both the secessionist and unionist blocs are riven with disagreements over who should be president. 


Many secessionist candidates may also be blocked from taking their seats. Mr Puigdemont remains in exile in Belgium and Mr Junqueras in prison, while all members of the former government are facing charges. Both could take office in absentia, but would not be able to vote, weakening the bloc’s parliamentary presence.

Mr Puigdemont has said he will return to Catalonia if re-elected, but is demanding guarantees from the Spanish government that he not be jailed. Watching the vote from Belgium yesterday, he tweeted: “This is the moment for the Republic of citizens to retire the monarchy of (Article) 155,” referring to the implementation of direct rule.


The government of Mariano Rajoy has said it will accept a pro-independence government as long as it remains within the law. But any unilateral moves towards secession would draw a forceful response. On the eve of voting, he issued a warning to the “future leaders” of Catalonia, saying he would always defend “the unity of Spain, the national sovereignty”.


“Now we know what Article 155 is,” Mr Rajoy said. “And here and in all the territories of Spain now they know what happens when they do what cannot be done.”

Article Source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/21/catalans-turn-record-numbers-vote-critical-regional-election/

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