With ten days of campaigning to go till Spain's general election, Catalonia is unquestionably in the spotlight. The same applied in last December's Andalusia elections; this time it makes more sense. But as well as being an issue, the Catalan part of the electoral arithmetic is key to the overall outcome: the Catalan pro-independence parties want a result in which Pedro Sánchez will need their parliamentary votes to be reinvested as prime minister, and may thus be forced to restart talks on Catalonia. The Socialists (PSOE) hope they don't have to rely on anyone - mathematically, that's a big stretch. On paper, the Republican Left (ERC) and the PSOE are fighting for the win in Catalonia, with the latest surveys giving ERC the advantage. The most generous was the Spain's public CIS polling agency, which last week had ERC not only winning but also doubling it's 2016 result. This same study indicated that there are more than 300,000 voters undecided between the two largest pro-independence parties: ERC and JxCat (Together for Catalonia).
In a campaign in which there are Catalan candidates in prison, here's El Nacional's look at how each party is tackling the electoral battle in Catalonia:
ERC: metropolitan-based, repression-focused
ERC's campaign is based on a strong presence around greater Barcelona and focused on the message that the 28th April election is a "new plebiscite between democracy and repression". Their message over the final ten days will be aimed at cancelling out the Socialists' claim that they're the only ones who can stop a right-wing coalition government in Madrid including far-right Vox. ERC's counter is to warn about another possible pact, that of PSOE with the vehemently anti-independence Ciudadanos (Cs), which could take leaders Albert Rivera and Inés Arrimadas into power. The stronger that ERC and the independence movement are, say the Catalan party, the more they'll be able to influence PSOE's actions to find a "democratic" solution to the conflict with Catalonia.
Under the motto "Va de llibertat" ("It's about liberty"), the candidacy headed by Oriol Junqueras and Gabriel Rufián is focusing its hunt for new votes in the Barcelona metropolitan area, where it's grown exponentially in recent elections. The party started its campaign in Sant Vicenç dels Horts, the town where Oriol Junqueras was mayor, and will end in Badalona, with key stops on the Barcelona "beltway" such as Granollers and Sabadell. They're going further afield as well, however, passing through Lleida, Reus, Girona, Figueres and Amposta.
JxCat: emotion and dialogue with red lines
The surveys aren't giving Junts per Catalunya a break. For a long time now, the polling numbers have been forecasting a loss of seats for this political group, pro-independence heir to much of the vote of the old Catalan centre-right party Convergència. The JxCat objective: to win enough deputies to have their own parliamentary group in Spain's Congress, which they didn't quite manage this legislature. To succeed they need to take 5 seats and 15% of the vote in Catalonia, according to the rules.
They've brought out their big guns right from the start, with the three most recent presidents of Catalonia sharing a stage: Quim Torra and Artur Mas physically, and Carles Puigdemont by video connection. Then the party's candidates travelled to Puigdemont's base in Waterloo. During Semana Santa, they'll go to Soto del Real prison in Madrid.
Emotional factors are once again a key elements of their campaign. You can see it in the images they've chosen for their posters - namely the photos of the three imprisoned men who lead their party lists: Jordi Sànchez, Jordi Turull and Josep Rull, number ones for Barcelona, Lleida and Tarragona respectively. Images taken in their last hours of freedom before heading to court, many months ago. The JxCat slogan is "La veu de la independència" ("The voice of independence"). As the campaign reaches its climax, JxCat will try to set itself apart from ERC's strategy, asserting they won't offer Pedro Sánchez a blank cheque like the Catalan parties did to allow him to displace Mariano Rajoy from the prime ministerial role last year, and they'll make their red lines clear: an end to the repression and right to self-determination.
The PSC's balancing act between Cs and 'indepes'
The Catalan Socialists (the PSC, part of Spain's governing PSOE party) has not won a general election in Catalonia for 11 years. The last time was in 2008, when with candidate Carme Chacón they obtained the best result in their history, with 25 deputies. Now they only have 7. For the first time since that difficult period began, the Catalan Socialists see a possibility of finishing first. And their adversaries also perceive this. For that reason they can expect to receive a lot of criticism. The strategy of the electoral list led by minister Meritxell Batet is to fish for votes from the left-wing En Comú Podem (Commons) especially, but also from Cs. And to do so they are appealing for the "useful" vote.
Not a single day in this campaign goes by without the suspicion being raised that they will end up forming a pact with Ciudadanos to carry on governing Spain. In Catalonia, there are at least three parties - ERC, the Commons and JxCat - which have decided to base their campaigns on presenting themselves as the alternative to this PSOE-Cs alliance that they take as a given. This question is there in the air. And despite the fact that this finger-pointing makes the Socialists uncomfortable, the response of their leaders hasn't resolved the doubts - quite the contrary. In fact, until they have the results in their hands, they seem unwilling to clear it up, because they don't want to have to eat their words nor be bound by them, as Rivera was in the last election when he said he wouldn't make Rajoy prime minister.
The Socialists are focusing their campaign on establishing that the choice is between an Andalusian-style coalition, right-wing and confrontational (PP, Cs and VOX), and a progressive, dialogue-based government headed by Pedro Sánchez, and their candidate has a couple of visits to Catalonia on his campaign schedule. They say they are willing to sit down with everyone but they are avoiding going into much detail.
The Commons, from victory to crisis
The left-wing Commons, allied with Podemos, were the most voted grouping in Catalonia at both of the last two Spanish general elections - in December 2015 and then immediately afterwards in June 2016 - but are now fighting a campaign with the polls against them. With former leader and bulwark, Xavier Domènech, having left the party, the candidature is now entrusted to Jaume Asens. According to the last CIS poll they would lose half of their seats (from 12, they would drop to 5-6) and would finish in a modest third position, behind the PSC and ERC. In addition, they arrive at the polls affected by their umpteenth crisis, with the departure of two deputies, Elisenda Alamany and Joan Josep Nuet, who have joined ERC for this election as well as for the municipal elections in May.
With this background, the Commons are staging a very metropolitan campaign, since they know that Barcelona is where they can win the most votes, with a significant presence of the Spanish leadership of the left-wing Unidas Podemos grouping they are part of (Pablo Iglesias, Irene Montero and Alberto Garzón) and also of Barcelona mayor Ada Colau. Under the slogan 'Let's win to move forward', the Commons are trying to sell themselves as the guarantors of a new progressive government in coalition with the PSOE. Aware that a part of their electorate also has sympathies with ERC, the campaign is likely to attack this party directly - in fact it is already doing so, accusing the Catalan party of being a blockade in Congress.
Operation Arrimadas, double-edged sword for Cs
The woman who became Catalonia's opposition leader after the Catalan elections on 21st December 2017 has decided to make the move to Madrid: Inés Arrimadas is a solidly performing asset for Ciudadanos. She knows it, the party knows it and national leader Albert Rivera knows it. She made it clear in the Andalusian elections last December, in which she was one of the key figures of the Cs campaign. For the 28th April, even though she is standing as number one on the party list for Barcelona, Arrimadas will campaign throughout Spain, in parallel with Rivera.
However, a move that might favour the party at Spanish level could have its downside for them in Catalonia. The majority of Cs deputies in the Catalan Parliament heard that their leader was packing her bags for Madrid via the media. Along with her, other Cs heavyweights in the Catalan chamber are also leaving, such as Espejo-Saavedra, a member of Parliament's Board. This stampede to the Spanish capital leaves the party without clear leadership in Catalonia. Moreover, depending on the results, one can't discard the possibility of differences emerging and an internal crisis.
In the last general elections, with Juan Carlos Girauta at the head, Cs obtained 5 deputies in Catalonia, four in Barcelona and another in Tarragona. Now, the surveys predict a similar result. But in between these two votes, was the 2017 Catalan election, which Arrimadas won. The strategy of setting alight anti-independence sentiment seems unlikely to give the party the same results in 2019.
The PP, obscured by VOX?
Gradually, the Partido Popular in Catalonia is getting smaller. After the last elections to the Catalan Parliament, called by the PP itself, when Mariano Rajoy used article 155 to take control in Catalonia, the party has had only four deputies in the Catalan chamber. To try to put a stop to the haemorrhage for the election to Spain's Congress, party leader Pablo Casado has drafted in the aristocratic figure of Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, generating massive irritation in the ranks of the Catalan PP.
From the Aznar-led wing of the party, Álvarez de Toledo launches an attack on all that reeks of Catalan nationalism every time she opens her mouth. Just this week, accompanied by Casado, she co-presented the PP's electoral programme. The opening pages are dedicated specifically to promises on combating Catalan independence, with measures such as making illegal referendums a specific crime (as they once were), eliminating the possibility of pardons for rebellion and re-applying 155.
According to the last CIS poll, the head of the party list for Barcelona is likely to be the only one on any of the PP's Catalan lists to win a seat, far from the 6 deputies that the PP achieved in 2016. Far-right VOX is expected to overtake them. As a reinforcement, the party brought in a big gun - Aznar - to open the party campaign in Barcelona. Stangely enough, just a few hours before the big launch, part of the facade of the PP headquarters collapsed. A metaphor?
Possible emergence of Front Republicà
In addition to all of this, the election may see the emergence of the Front Republicà, the Republican Front candidature led by Albano-Dante Fachín, in coalition with Poble Lliure (organization linked to the CUP) and Pirates de Catalunya. These three groups have decided to stand jointly for the April 28th vote because they consider that ERC and JxCat no longer represent the mandate of the 1st October referendum. In fact, to make it clear that this is the point of their candidacy, they launched their campaign at Barcelona's Escola Ramon Llull, a school that saw heavy police violence on the 2017 referendum day and where Roger Español, number five on their list, lost an eye to a police rubber bullet.
Their main handicap is the low presence they are likely to have in the media - especially the public media - due to their lack of parliamentary representation up till now. Judging by the polls, it's not clear that they can get a seat in Congress. That, however, will be decided on election day.
The threat of VOX, knocking at Barcelona's door
Both the PP and Cs are nervous about how the extreme right is undermining their territory. And instead of differentiating themselves clearly from the far-right Vox, their response has been emulate its policies. The problem? That given a choice between a copy and the real thing, the electorate usually chooses the second. According to the CIS surveys, VOX has a market in Barcelona, even more so than the PP. The party led by Santiago Abascal could take 3 seats. The hope: that the surveys have not been very accurate lately.