Catalans flocked to the polls on Thursday for an election that could strip pro-independence parties of absolute control of the region’s parliament, though prospects of it ending the country’s worst political crisis in decades appear slim.
Final surveys published last Friday showed separatists and unionists running neck-and-neck, though the same data suggests the pro-independence camp may still be able to form a minority government.
That would keep national politics mired in turmoil and raise concerns in European capitals and financial markets.
However, the secessionist campaign has lost some momentum since it unilaterally declared independence in October to trigger Thursday’s vote, and one of its leaders took a conciliatory tone towards Madrid in comments published this week.
Long queues formed outside voting stations in the affluent region of northeastern Spain shortly after they opened at 0800 GMT. They will stay open until 1900 GMT in an election expected to draw a record turnout.
Among those queuing in L‘Hospitalet de Llobregat, a working class suburb south of Barcelona, was Miguel Rodriguez, a 53 year old doctor, who in October voted for independence in a referendum that Madrid declared unconstitutional.
“I‘m not very optimistic that these elections will return a stable government,” he said, upset that the Spanish government had fired the previous regional government. “We’ve had all our rights taken away.”
International bond investors showed few signs of nerves on Thursday, with the premium demanded for holding Spanish debt over its top-rated German equivalent holding close to its narrowest levels in three months.
“(The election) cannot be ignored going into year-end,” said Orlando Green, European fixed income strategist at Credit Agricole in London. “But the secession movement has been significantly diminished and would need a decisive move to revive it.”
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sacked Catalonia’s previous government for holding the referendum and declaring independence.
He called then Thursday’s vote in the hopes of returning Catalonia to “normality” under a unionist government, or failing that a separatist government acting within the Spanish and regional laws and not seeking a unilateral split.
A new separatist majority might further dampen investors’ confidence in Catalonia, which by itself has an economy larger than that of Portugal and is a key driver of Spain’s economic growth.
However, separatist leaders — who have campaigned while Spanish courts investigate them on allegations of rebellion for their roles in the Oct. 1 referendum — have recently backed away from demands for unilateral secession.
Deposed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has campaigned from self-imposed exile in Brussels and his former deputy and now rival candidate, Oriol Junqueras, has done so from behind bars at a prison outside Madrid.
In a written interview with Reuters published on Monday, Junqueras struck a conciliatory tone and opened the door to building bridges with the Spanish state.
The independence campaign pitched Spain into its worst political turmoil since the collapse of fascist rule and return of democracy in the 1970s. It has polarized public opinion, dented Spain’s economic rebound and prompted a business exodus from Catalonia to other parts of the country.
Thursday’s vote has become a de facto referendum on how support for the independence movement has fared in recent months.
None of the six parties in the Catalan parliament – ranging across the ideological spectrum from separatist Marxists to the Catalan wing of Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party (PP) – are expected on their own to come close to the 68-seat majority.
“I want a change, because things are going from bad to worse here and it’s the young people that carry the brunt of it,” said Manuela Gomez, 71, who voted for unionist favorites Ciudadanos, which could emerge as the most voted party in the election but would find it almost impossible to form a governing coalition.
Analysts expect the next Catalan government to result from weeks of haggling between parties over viable coalitions.
An analysis of polling data by the Madrid daily El Pais published on Tuesday found that the most likely scenario was separatists securing a majority with the backing or abstention of the Catalan offshoot of anti-austerity party Podemos.
Podemos backs the unity of Spain but says Catalans should be able to have a referendum authorized by Madrid to decide their future. At the same time, Podemos favors a left-wing alliance of Catalan parties that both back and reject independence.
In this, analysts say, Podemos is caught between two options it does not particularly like, but would prefer to back the separatists rather than a coalition involving Rajoy’s PP.