Spain's Catalonia Holds Tight Vote Under Cloud Of Pandemic

Spain's Catalonia holds tight vote under cloud of pandemic

Barcelona, (UrduPoint / Pakistan Point News - 15th Feb, 2021 ) :Three years after a failed bid to break away from Spain, Catalonia voted Sunday in an election marked by low turnout in which separatist parties appeared set to renew their majority in the regional parliament.

With Spain still grappling with a third wave of coronavirus infections, the vote in the wealthy northeastern region was held under tight restrictions to reduce the risk of contagion.

The Socialists which govern at the national level won the biggest share of the vote, 24.5 percent, according to a poll released by public television TVE after polling stations closed at 8 pm (1900 GMT) and carried out over the past two weeks.

But in terms of the number of seats in Catalonia's 135-seat parliament, the party came in second behind the leftist separatist ERC.

The ERC and two other separatist parties -- the more hardline JxC, or "Together for Catalonia", and the smaller, radical CUP -- would once again have an absolute majority in the assembly.

While separatist parties have been deeply divided over strategy since Catalonia's failed 2017 separatist bid, the poll suggests they are well placed to continue to govern the region of around 7.8 million people.

Officials results are expected around midnight.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had hoped the election -- the fifth in the region in a decade -- would end the separatists' rule in Catalonia.

He fielded former health minister Salvador Illa, the face of Spain's fight against the pandemic, as his candidate in the elections and made several campaign appearances in Catalonia.

While the ERC has helped Sanchez's minority government to pass legislation at the national level, like other separatist parties it vowed in writing not to reach any agreements with Illa.

- Virus measures - Voters had to wear face masks, use disinfectant gel provided at polling stations and stand apart while lining up in rainy weather to cast their ballots.

To help spread out voters, polling stations were set up in spacious venues such as food markets, the area around FC Barcelona's football stadium and the bullring in Tarragona.

The final hour of voting was reserved for people infected with Covid-19 or undergoing quarantine.

During this time polling staff will wear gloves, facial screens and protective gowns.

The measures appeared to discourage people from voting.

While some 5.5 million people are eligible to vote, as of 6 pm turnout stood at 45.7 percent, compared with 68.2 percent at the same time during the previous election in December 2017, just months after the failed secession bid.

"I hesitated until the last minute whether to come vote or not," Cristina Caballero, a 34-year-old child educator, told AFP at a Barcelona polling station.

"I think these elections should have been postponed." The regional government tried to put off the elections until the end of May because of the pandemic but the courts blocked that move.

- 'We are afraid' - While more than 40 percent of the 82,000 people assigned to help staff polling stations on the day had asked to be recused, all polling stations were operating normally as of noon, according to the Catalan government.

Still, some people tapped for polling station duty expressed concern.

"Of course we are afraid, I just had cancer and am still on sick leave, but I was called up," Eva Vizcaino, a 54-year-old office worker, told AFP at a Barcelona polling station.

"The last hour is especially frightening, when people with Covid come." In the December 2017 election, JxC was ahead, forming a coalition with ERC.

If it is confirmed that the tables have been turned in ERC's favour, it could facilitate the tentative reconciliation that Sanchez's government has sought to broker since coming to power.

"An ERC executive would maintain the current ambiguous approach of criticising Madrid rhetorically but not adopting any unilateral measures," said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at political consultancy Teneo.

"In contrast, a government headed by JxC would probably lead to a more confrontational stance."