Divided Catalans face moment of truth on independence bid
Barcelona: Catalans were anxiously preparing on Wednesday for a decisive regional vote, hoping it will help settle the bitter dispute over independence from Spain that has divided their region and rattled Europe.
The election pits leaders of the wealthy northeastern region's separatist movement against candidates who want to stay part of Spain.
Record turnout is expected but with pro-and anti-independence candidates neck-and-neck in opinion polls, neither side is likely to win a clear majority.
The regional election is being closely watched across a European Union still reeling from Britain's shock decision to leave the bloc, and wary about any breakup of the eurozone's fourth-largest economy.
The separatist drive has inflamed passions not just in Catalonia but across Spain, with the government in Madrid taking the unprecedented step of stripping the region of its autonomy after its parliament declared independence on October 27.
"I think many positions have become very extreme," said Assumpta Corell, a 21-year-old university student from the seaside city of
Castelldefels who says she will vote for Ciudadanos, the centrist, anti-independence party that is scoring high in opinion polls.
"People who have one opinion will maintain it, people who have a different opinion will continue thinking differently, which is great, but the problem comes when politics play at dividing people even more," she said.
The election campaign has been tense and often surreal, with axed regional president Carles Puigdemont holding rallies via videolink from exile in Belgium, and his former deputy Oriol Junqueras sending out messages and even poems to supporters from behind bars.
"This is not a normal election," Puigdemont told supporters Tuesday evening in a final, virtual rally from Belgium.
"What is at stake is not who gets the most votes, but whether the country (Catalonia) or (Spanish Prime Minister Mariano) Rajoy wins" the standoff, he added.