December 20, 2017 / 6:09 AM / 3 months ago

Divided Catalans prepare to vote in close-run election

VIC/CERDANYOLA DEL VALLES, Spain (Reuters) - Catalonia votes on Thursday for a new administration in an election many hope will resolve Spain’s worst crisis in decades after the region declared independence leading Madrid to sack local leaders.

Campaign poster of the political platform "Junts per Catalunya" showing ousted Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is seen in the metro ahead of regional elections in Barcelona, Spain, December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Polls suggest neither the pro-independence nor the pro-unity camp will win a majority. The likely outcome is a hung parliament and many weeks of wrangling to form a new regional government.

In the separatist heartland of rural Catalonia, fireman Josep Sales says he hopes the results will endorse the result of an Oct. 1 illegal referendum on independence from Spain and lead to the creation of a republic.

“If we get a majority, something will have to be done. And if the politicians don’t do it, the people will unite,” he said, speaking from the town fire station where many of the red fire engines bear the slogan ‘Hello Democracy’.

Policemen walk past campaign posters of Catalan Ciudadanos candidate Ines Arrimadas ahead of regional elections in Barcelona, Spain, December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

“If we have to bring the country to a standstill, so be it,” said the 45-year-old, who plans to vote for Carles Puigdemont, the sacked Catalan head who is campaigning for election from self-imposed exile in Belgium.

The uncertainty generated by the independence drive has hurt hotel occupancy rates in the region, dented consumer sales and caused more than 3,000 businesses to move their registered headquarters from Catalonia.

A Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) supporter wears a button with an image of dismissed Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras on the final day of campagining for Catalonia's regional elections outside the Estremera prison where Junqueras is being held pending trial on charges of sedition, rebellion and misappropriation of funds, in Estremera, Spain, December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

It has also bitterly divided Catalan society between those who support independence and those who favour unity with Spain.

“Everyone is eager for the election and to see how it turns out, because nothing is clear at the moment,” said 34-year-old flamenco teacher Maria Gonzalez, who lives in Cerdanyola del Valles, an industrial suburb of Barcelona.

“The feeling on the streets is not comfortable,” says Gonzalez, the daughter of migrants from other parts of Spain who moved to Catalonia decades ago and who plans to vote for pro-unity party Ciudadanos (“Citizens”). “There’s a hidden tension.”

Writing By Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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