Much has changed in Poblenou over the past four years – not least the arrival of a pandemic that has devastated tourism and employment – but the people of the traditional working-class barrio in the north of Barcelona are struggling with a nagging sense of deja vu over Sunday’s regional election.
“All the talk is about independence but what most of us want from politicians is to solve social problems,” says Nuria Vallejo, a doctor working in the public sector who has lived in the neighbourhood for 20 years. “Number one is the health crisis, and then there’s the education system and questions of sustainability.”
Poblenou, once the heart of the city’s textile industry that gloried in the nickname “little Manchester”, is now reinventing itself as a hub for tech companies.
But, like much of the Catalan capital, the area is currently weathering the double storm of the pandemic and the attendant economic consequences.
Were any more uncertainty needed, it has arrived in the shape of the election, which again pits unionists against separatists as the decades-long row over Catalan independence rises from simmer to boil.
Three and a half years ago, the pro-independence Catalan regional government, led by Carles Puigdemont, defied repeated warnings from the Spanish government and courts by staging an illegal, unilateral independence referendum.
Voting was marred by a violent and heavy-handed response from police officers sent into the region by the Spanish government to stop the poll. Three weeks later, pro-independence members of the Catalan parliament made a unilateral declaration of independence, prompting the Spanish government to use the constitution to assume direct control of the region, sack Puigdemont and his government, and call a snap regional election for December 2017. Puigdemont fled to Belgium to avoid arrest, but nine of the others involved were jailed over their role in the failed bid for independence.
Despite the violence sparked by the verdict in 2019, the issue of Catalan independence has faded over the past two years amid growing splits between separatist factions.
Polls this time suggest a tight race for first place in the region between the Catalan Socialist party (PSC), which opposes independence, the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the similarly separatist Together for Catalonia party.
The election could also see the far-right Vox party overtaking its conservative rivals to win its first seats in the regional parliament.
However, if there’s one thing residents agree on, it’s that they aren’t getting too excited about any of the candidates on offer, and have little faith in their ability to address the problems they face.
“The poor quality of politicians in this country is really worrying,” says Pere Nieto, a 53-year-old primary school teacher and lifetime Poblenou resident. “The key question has to be the management of public services, especially health and education and housing,” adds Nieto. “But the debate is about sovereignty.”
Albert Valencia, 24, had opposed Catalan independence until 1 October 2017 when the Spanish state’s brutal and heavy-handed response to the unilateral referendum staged by the pro-independence government shocked the country and the rest of the world. Although that day’s events changed his mind, Valencia sees little prospect of independence for the region any time soon.
“There was never really a plan,” he says. “We were led to believe that all we had to do was vote in the referendum but it’s not that simple. We were all a bit naive. And the pro-independence parties in this election don’t have a plan either.”
Salvador Illa, who stood down as Spain’s health minister to run as the PSC’s candidate for the presidency, has promised to do his best to heal the divided region if he wins – or, as he puts it, to “stitch Catalonia back together”.
But even if the PSC finish first, the formation of the mooted tripartite leftwing government looks increasingly like a pipe dream. The local branch of Podemos is unlikely to be able to win enough seats while the ERC has joined other pro-independence parties in signing a pledge not to help the socialists into office.
The wedge issue, predictably enough, is independence, which continues to split the region and its politicians. A recent survey discovered that 47.7% of Catalans are against independence, and 44.5% in favour.
But José Pablo Ferrándiz, chief researcher for the polling firm Metroscopia, says independence is a less pressing concern for most voters. “When we asked what the new regional government’s priorities should be, only a third said it had to be the Catalan independence process – and that was really more among Together for Catalonia and [anti-capitalist] Cup voters than ERC voters – so there are divisions within the independence movement,” he says.
“The main concerns among voters – pro-independence and anti-independence – are the economic situation and the handling of the pandemic. They cut right across the voting groups. This time round, independence is a totally secondary issue.”
And yet it remains at the top of the political agenda for the pro-independence parties. The ERC, which favours a moderate, gradual approach to independence, has once again buried its differences with Together for Catalonia, whose strategy has been one of confrontation and maintaining tensions with the central government in order to keep the issue on the national and international radar and hold on to its followers.
One of the decisive factors in Sunday’s election will be turnout. Some unionist voters will probably stay at home on the assumption that independence isn’t the red-hot issue it was four years ago, while others may be loathe to leave home to cast their ballots because of Covid. Pro-independence voters, on the other hand, tend to turn out in large numbers.
Another important factor will be the continuing decline of the centre-right Citizens party.
The 2017 election, called by the then conservative government after it assumed control of Catalonia following the unilateral declaration of independence, was a triumph for Citizens.
The party’s clear and tough opposition to the secessionist manoeuvring paid off, with Citizens winning the largest number of seats but unable to enlist the necessary support to form a government in Catalonia, leaving the region in the hands of the pro-independence parties.
Today, Citizens is a shadow of what it then was. Its shift to the right – and decision to oppose the no-confidence vote that propelled the socialists into national government amid public fury over the corruption scandals that had enveloped the previous administration of the conservative People’s party (PP) – have cost it dear.
The question now is where will its voters go. As Berta Barbet, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, points out, “the anti-independence movement has a new party – Vox.”
The far-right party, the third largest in the national parliament, stands to benefit from disgruntled Citizens supporters, and also from the scandals that continue to dog their rivals on the right. Earlier this week, the former treasurer of the Popular party (PP), Luis Bárcenas, appeared in court as part of another corruption trial relating to the party’s illegal finances.
“A big party and one that wants to govern Spain can’t afford to do really badly in a region as important as Catalonia,” says Ferrándiz. But he also stresses that while Vox is on course to enter the Catalan parliament for the first time – and may even overtake the PP – everything is relative.
“Vox isn’t going to do that well either, but they’re undoubtedly going to sell winning seats in Catalonia and overtaking the PP as a big victory.”
The larger picture is harder to predict. The pro-independence parties could once again retain their majority, or the socialists could break through.
“[But] the numbers show it would be very difficult for Illa to become president,” says Barbet. “Even if they end up winning the most votes, the price the PSC will pay for that is eroding the bases of possible coalition partners and forming a government would be complicated.”
Even though the votes will be totted up quickly, she adds, “the deals could take far longer”. Such horse-trading is hardly new in Spanish or Catalan politics.
But the fact that nine parties are contesting Sunday’s election points, perhaps, towards a continuing malaise among voters that first manifested itself a few years ago with the eruption of Podemos and Citizens – a malaise that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We’re in a period of collapse and as a society we have to learn how to survive and I don’t think the political parties are capable of solving these problems,” says Albert Valencia.
“We need to take them to the street and find ways to help each other.”
The post 2021-02-13 14:35:30 | Catalan parties talk of separation, but for voters, health is the priority | Barcelona
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