© AFP | Marta Rovira of the pro-independence Republican Left party and Citizens Party leader Inés Arrimadas García.
18 December 2017: Catalonians vote in new regional elections December 21 in a ballot that is likely to reflect the prevailing mood on independence. Polls so far suggest that pro-independence parties are poised to regain their parliamentary majority.
The vote will take place against a backdrop of political uncertainty after Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dissolved the Catalan parliament, sacked regional leader Carles Puigdemont and imposed direct rule on the region in October. Four Catalan officials, including former vice president Oriol Junqueras, remain jailed on charges including sedition while Puigdemont and four former cabinet members remain in exile in Belgium.
With so many Catalonian leaders out of the way, new figures have emerged during the campaign, with Marta Rovira, 40, of the pro-independence Republican Left party and Inés Arrimadas García, 36, of the anti-secession Citizens Party now the favourites to succeed Puigdemont as regional president.
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In a November letter to Republican Left members written from prison, party leader Junqueras threw his support behind Rovira taking the leadership of Catalonia.
“I say it while I am in Estremera prison, with peace and time to reflect (…) It is time for a woman to lead, a woman who never surrenders and with an unequalled determination and conviction, who is sensitive and audacious, yet stubborn and obstinate. The Republic will have a woman’s name.”
Rovira, ‘the iron lady’
With just days to go before the ballot, Rovira’s Republican Left party leads in polls (predicted to win 34 seats) despite having taken a political gamble. It refused to run a joint ticket with Puigdemont’s party if other independence groups – such as the Popular Unity Candidacy, the Catalonia in Common Party (of Barcelona’s Mayor Ada Colau) and the Podemos party – were excluded. Although an alliance between Puigdemont’s Catalan European Democratic Party and the Republican Left proved successful in elections two years before, the former now occupies third position in the polls while the latter is in the top spot.
Junqueras has been advising Rovira, a trained lawyer, on her presidential image. Various newspapers have termed her the “iron lady”, ready to push forward with independence.
“Carme Forcadell (speaker of the Catalan parliament) is not the toughest – it’s Marta Rovira,” one of her relatives told the national daily El Confidencial, adding: “It was she who advised Puigdemont last September to avoid elections, and instead to declare the independence of the Catalan parliament unilaterally.”
Arrimadas, ‘president of all Catalans’
Rovira must maintain her lead to ensure her party’s victory, although the pro-Madrid Citizens Party has narrowed the gap to one point while the People’s Party and the Socialist Party have also made gains. Citizens Party leader Ines Arrimadas Garcia has galvanised the anti-independence camp, and despite being the youngest candidate on the ballot has positioned herself as the “president of every Catalan, of all those who seek independence and all those who do not”.
She has held herself somewhat above the fray by avoiding slandering those who support secession. “You will not hear me insult the independence movement; we must regain respect and the ability to coexist.” Her campaign message has been clear: to put an end to the unprecedented institutional, economic and social crises generated by the controversial October 1 independence referendum that led to this “independence push, which we intend to reverse within the first hundred days of our mandate”.
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Arrimadas – who was leader of the opposition until the Catalan parliament was dissolved when Madrid invoked Article 155 and imposed direct rule – seeks agreement among all groups opposed to independence. If her party wins enough votes, she will become the leader of this anti-independence coalition. Her chances of success are good; in an early December televised debate, Arrimadas dominated Rovira. A talented orator, she proved to be far more incisive than her opponent. She criticised Rovira’s party as responsible for tearing apart the social fabric of Catalan society.
She also accused Rovira of spreading falsehoods. Rovira accused Rajoy’s government in November of having threatened violence – “Death in the streets” – if independence was declared. Rajoy vigorously denied the accusations, and when Arrimadas confronted her in the debate Rovira’s silence spoke volumes.
Both Spanish and foreign media have made much of the fact that Rovira in apparently ill at ease when speaking Spanish. But despite everything, the Republican Left remains mobilised. From his prison in Madrid, Junqueras expressed the determination of his party to see things through to the end, vowing: “We will persist.”