Spain PM's Socialists eye power grab in Catalan vote

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Spain PM’s Socialists eye power grab in Catalan vote

/ 04:47 PM May 12, 2024

Spain PM's Socialists eye power grab in Catalan vote

People listen to the speech of self-exiled Catalan separatist leader, Spanish member of the European Parliament and founder of the Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) party Carles Puigdemont (2nd L) and Junts MPs Salvador Verges (R), Monica Sales (2nd R) and Jeanine Abella (L) stand on stage during the last rally before the upcoming regional elections in Catalonia on May 10 2024, in Elna, southwestern France. Agence France-Presse

BARCELONA — Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists are hoping to show Catalonia has turned away from its independence fixation by winning Sunday’s regional vote and defeating separatist leader Carles Puigdemont.

When the polls open at 9:00 am (0700 GMT), the wealthy northeastern region of some eight million people will vote for 135 deputies to the Catalan parliament.

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Opinion polls suggest Sanchez’s Socialists are ahead of Puigdemont’s hardline separatist JxCat and its rival ERC, led by current regional leader Pere Aragones.

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READ: Spain PM Sanchez walks back from resignation threat

Polls close at 8:00 pm with results due out several hours later.

“We need a change on May 12, and only the Socialist Party and (its candidate) Salvador Illa can lead that… to move Catalonia forward in coexistence and social rights,” said Sanchez in Barcelona on wrapping up the campaign.

Since becoming premier in 2018, some nine months after a failed Catalan separatist bid of October 2017, Sanchez has sought to “heal the wounds” caused by the unprecedented political crisis.

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In 2021, he pardoned the separatists jailed over the secession bid. In November he moved to promote an amnesty bill for those still wanted by the justice system in exchange for key separatist backing in parliament that let him secure a new four-year term in office.

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The bill is in the Senate, due to pass into law in coming weeks. This will allow the return of Puigdemont, 61, the Catalan separatist leader who oversaw the botched independence bid then fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution.

The controversial measure has brought the right-wing and far-right opposition to the streets in huge protests, accusing Sanchez of letting himself be held “hostage” by the separatists to stay in power.

– High stakes –
For Sanchez, seizing Catalonia from the separatists — who have ruled the region for a decade — would be a major victory in his efforts to turn the page on the crisis sparked by the secession bid.

It would also allow him to press the restart button on his latest term in office, which began in November.

So far, it has been soured by bitter right-wing opposition and a corruption probe into his wife, which almost prompted his resignation last month.

Although the Socialists won the most votes during the last regional election in February 2021, their candidate Illa failed to piece together a governing majority. The separatist parties  clubbed together to form a 74-seat coalition.

Despite lagging behind Illa in the polls, Puigdemont hopes for a strong showing in the vote so he can return home triumphantly as Catalan regional leader once the amnesty has become law.

“Let’s fill the ballot boxes with voting papers and start preparing for a new era,” said Puigdemont wrapping up his own campaign in the southern French town of Elne.

Unable to enter Spain, where he is subject to an arrest warrant, he has been campaigning in southern France near the border.

But the numbers do not look good for the JxCat leader who has vowed to retire from politics if he fails to win.

The Catalan separatist movement is deeply divided now however, with JxCat sharply at odds with its more moderate rival ERC.

The picture has been further complicated by the emergence in recent months of the ultranationalist Catalan Alliance which polls see winning several seats, although no other party would enter a pact with it.

Polls suggest the Socialists will win around 40 seats, meaning they would need support to reach the 68 required for a governing majority.

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One possible alliance would involve the far left and ERC, in what would likely cause a damaging implosion within the independence movement.

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