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Catalans vote to gauge push for split or reconciliation with Spain

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Opinion polls suggest a comfortable lead for a candidate backed by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Polls have opened in Catalonia in a regional parliamentary election whose outcome will reverberate in Spain’s national politics.

Sunday’s ballot is going to be a test of the strength of the separatist movement in the wealthy northeastern part of Spain and of the policies of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who is attempting reconciliation with the separatists.

More than 5.7 million voters are eligible to choose lawmakers for the regional parliament based in Barcelona.

Separatists have held the regional government for more than a decade. But polling and a national election in July show that support for secession has shrunk somewhat since Carles Puigdemont, former regional president, led an “illegal” breakaway bid in 2017.

Puigdemont is a fugitive from Spain’s laws since he fled the country days after his failed secession attempt.

But that has not prevented him from running in this election as he campaigns from southern France. He has said he would return to Spain when the newly elected lawmakers convene to choose a regional president at some point after the election.

By that time, Puigdemont hopes to be cleared of any legal troubles after Spain’s parliament gives its final approval to a contentious amnesty for him and hundreds of other separatists.

The amnesty forms part of Sanchez’s intense push to reduce tensions in Catalonia which also includes the pardoning of jailed high-profile separatists.

If voters do not validate that by coming out in support of his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, it would be a blow to the leader who heads a minority coalition in Madrid.

Battle in separatist camp

Sanchez has campaigned alongside Salvador Illa, the candidate of the Socialists.

“We need a change on May 12 and only Salvador Illa can lead it,” Sanchez told the Socialists’ closing rally in Barcelona, arguing that only Illa can give stability and improve the social climate in the region.

A win by Sanchez’s Socialists would end a decade of separatist governments that have roiled Spanish politics and would be a vindication of Sanchez’s conciliatory approach with the Catalans.

Illa won the most votes in a 2021 regional election but failed to stop separatist Pere Aragones from forming a government.

Opinion polls now forecast a comfortable lead for Illa over Aragones’s Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), or Republican Left of Catalonia party, and the hardline separatist Junts, or Together for Catalonia.

A new pro-secession, far-right party called Catalan Alliance, which rails against unauthorised immigration and the Spanish state, is also contesting and hopes to earn parliamentary representation.

A total of nine parties are running and no single one is expected to come close to winning enough votes to reach the absolute majority of 68 seats in the chamber. So deal-making will be critical.

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