Catalonia votes while split on secession from Spain

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Yellow has undoubtedly become the color of the season among Catalan separatists.

Abel Perez, an engineer, wears a thick yellow ribbon pinned on his back. He supports the release of the Catalan pro-independence leaders who were jailed following a contested referendum on October 1 on whether Catalonia should secede from Spain. Abel refers to those behind bars as “political prisoners” who are in jail “for defending the mandate given by the people.”

The Catalan National Assembly (ANC), one of the leading pro-independence civil society organisations, called on its supporters to wear yellow ribbons as a symbol of protest demanding the release of the imprisoned secessionist leaders. “We had never sold that much yellow cloth,” says Lola, the owner of a fabric and sewing goods store in downtown Barcelona. “Many look for yellow scarves; if they cannot find them, then they buy yellow wool from us and knit it themselves.”

An individual sports a yellow ribbon in support of so-called 'political prisoners' (Anna Gumbau)

An individual sports a yellow ribbon in support of so-called ‘political prisoners’ — jailed Catalan independence leaders

Read more: Catalan independence supporters in Brussels demand EU attention

Ahead of Catalonia’s regional election on December 21, candidates from the leading pro-independence parties have been among the first people to embrace the color trend. Throughout the many interviews, debates and public events held over the last few weeks, a large majority of them wore yellow clothes, from ribbons to coats to turtleneck tops.

However, seen that yellow now represents the pro-independence political forces, the Spanish Electoral Commission has forbidden banners of this color in public places near the voting stations on election day. The Election Commission also has barred the staff at the polling stations from wearing the color yellow on ribbons and scarves, as they must keep “absolute neutrality” throughout the voting day. Even Barcelona’s own Provinicial Electoral Commission forbid the City Council from lighting up public fountains in that color after receiving a complaint from the conservative pro-unionist Popular Party (Partido Popular). Other Catalan cities have received similar complaints.

A library in Barcelona with yellow ribbons (Anna Gumbau)

A library in Barcelona has yellow ribbons tied to its gate in support of imprisoned Catalan secessionist leaders

A divided electorate

The predominant overarching theme of the December 21 election campaign is the struggle between the roadmap to independence and the continuation of national unity in Spain. Topics related to economics or social rights have been scarce; education and the use of Catalan as the primary language of instruction are the exceptions, and when these topics would come up, they would mostly address the affect of independence on these issues.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for the regional election as he triggered Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, sacking the Catalan government and taking direct control over the highly autonomous region. At first, many Catalan secessionists had called the election “illegitimate” — an imposition from Madrid. But now, as university physics student Marta Cervello puts it, “in this election we must show once again we want our Republic and that we reject Article 155.”

The historic palace that houses the Catalan government (Anna Gumbau)

The palace that hosts the offices of the Catalan president have been empty since Madrid took control of the region and Puigdement fled to Brussels

“We need to reinforce in the polls what we voted for in the October 1 referendum,” Abel adds. “I am hoping for a landslide majority to defend our [Catalan] institutions.”

Spanish unionists, in contrast, see the election as “the way to restore stability at last,” as Miguel Fores, a bartender, puts it. Thursday will mark the fourth time since 2010 that Catalans go to the polls to vote in a regional election.

“The pro-independence drift is completely destroying the economy,” according to Carla. She works at a bank and told DW she has witnessed “a widespread outflow of capitals.”

The latest polls predicted a close outcome between pro-independence and constitutionalist forces. The unionist Citizens (Ciudadanos) and the secessionist Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana) look likely to capture the largest number of seats in the regional parliament. Some polls even predict a three-way tie with Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya), the party of ousted President Carles Puigdemont.

Caganers of politicians on display in a Barcelona store (Anna Gumbau)

A shop displays typical Catalan Christmas nativity figures — called ‘Caganers’ or ‘poopers’ — in the form of prominent regional and national politicians including Carles Puigdemont (left wth tie) and imprisoned leader Jordi Sanchez (black suit with white shirt) and regional politician Anna Gabriel (with purple shirt)

High turnout, high uncertainty

Pollsters also have predicted a high turnout on Thursday’s election day. GESOP, a Catalan pollster, suggests that it could pass the 80 percent mark. That would be the highest turnout ever for a Catalan election since regional elections began in 1980 — the record according to official government figure stands now at 77 percent in the September 2015 election.

As secessionist and unionist forces face the election day neck and neck, uncertainty over the upcoming government is rising. Neither the separatist nor the unionist forces are predicted to secure a majority in the regional parliament — and the leftist, anti-austerity party Catalonia in Common (Catalunya en Comu) is said to “hold the key” that will disentangle the government formation. The pro-independence bloc has become increasingly fragmented in the last few months.

“A hung parliament is very likely,” says David Lopez, an economist, “so I do not think that the election will really unblock the current crisis.”

A big banner supporting the release of Catalan civil society leaders on Barcelona streets (Anna Gumbau)

A big banner supporting the release of Catalan civil society leaders on Barcelona streets

David used the day prior to the elections — the so-called “reflection day” — to make up his mind: “I do not support independence, but I do not feel that either [of the unionist forces] really represents me. So I really do not know who I will vote for tomorrow.”

Many believe that Thursday’s elections will lead to nowhere: “I fear that we will come back to square one after the election,” admits Marta.

What it is also yet to be seen is whether voters themselves will be able to wear yellow inside the polling stations. While the Spanish Electoral Commission has not forbidden this, a yellow ribbon is likely to be seen as a partisan symbol. Indiviudal voting stations will be able to decide whether to ask people to remove rellow ribbons.  “I will certainly wear it tomorrow,” concludes Abel. “If I am asked to remove it, I will decide what I will do.”

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