Weary voters return for trial of strength in Catalonia
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Concepció Agustí will go to the polls on Thursday and do what she has always done — cast her ballot in favour of an independent Catalan state.
She did so in October, in the ill-fated independence referendum called by the regional government. And she will do so again on Thursday, in a regional election billed as the latest trial of strength between Catalonia’s separatist and unionist camps. This time, however, Ms Agustí will enter the voting booth with a weary heart.
“In October, I went to the ballot box with enthusiasm. Now there is no enthusiasm,” says Ms Agustí, 60, a biologist from Vilassar, a town north of Barcelona. “The vote on Thursday is a formality. We know that the elections won’t resolve anything,” adds the grassroots independence activist.
The same fear can be heard across Catalonia, not least on the other side of the region’s bitter political conflict. After three tumultuous months that have seen the arrest of senior independence leaders and the suspension of the region’s self-governance by Madrid, Catalan voters are approaching the ballot with a blend of tired resignation and grim determination.
Turnout is expected to be higher than in the regional poll in 2015, yet neither side expects a political breakthrough, let alone a resolution of the crisis. Polls suggest that many voters will shift their allegiance from one party to another, but without changing the overall strength of the opposing blocs in the Catalan parliament. One likely outcome, according to the latest surveys, is that the three pro-independence parties will have a wafer-thin majority of seats in the legislature but will fall short of a majority of votes. That was also the outcome in 2015, when Catalans last held a regional election.
“Nothing will change on Thursday. Catalan society finds itself in a structural stalemate,” says Esther Vera, the editor of Ara, a pro-independence Barcelona newspaper. The region, she adds, has divided into two opposing blocs that see little room for compromise and that remain fiercely determined not to let the other side win. “Our situation is one of stable instability,” says Ms Vera.
Joan Subirats, a professor of political science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, offers a similar analysis: “I don’t think this crisis will disappear. There are more than 40 per cent of Catalans who want to leave Spain and that is not going to change on Thursday, even if the political scenario is different.”
The gulf separating the two blocs becomes starkly visible as one travels up the coast on Line 1 of Catalonia’s Rodalies regional train network. The train connects working-class L’Hospitalet south of Barcelona with prosperous coastal towns such as Vilassar. One is a Socialist city where most of the residents speak Spanish and support for independence is low. The other is a Catalan-speaking bastion of the separatist movement, where 16 out of 21 local councillors back independence.
In L’Hospitalet, the town square is decked out with Christmas lights and little else. In Vilassar, streets and squares are filled with independence flags and hundreds of yellow ribbons — symbols of solidarity with the Catalan ministers jailed for their role in organising the illegal October referendum.