Catalonia’s divided residents head to the polls again

Voters are returning to the polls in Catalonia on Thursday in a regional election called by the Spanish government as a way out of the area’s political crisis.

In Barcelona, the region’s cosmopolitan capital, there is no sign of the independent country that Catalonia’s former leaders proclaimed with great fanfare nearly two months ago.

The Catalan independence movement’s leaders are in jail or have fled the country after staging a brazen October 1 referendum on secession which was declared illegal by Spain’s government and highest court.

Catalonia has been left deeply polarised by this autumn’s dramatic events.

Friendships have been broken and families split. Many Catalans who had mixed feelings about independence, or did not care about the issue much, now feel compelled to take a position.

Gabriel Brau, a 50-year-old photographer with little interest in politics, said he will vote for the first time since the 1980s, and it will be for one of the parties that favours independence. Or rather, it will be against those who do not, because he finds them complicit in Spain’s crackdown.

During the October referendum, Spanish police using rubber bullets and truncheons against voters and formed human barriers to keep them out of polling stations.

Mr Brau said: "What happened on October 1 affected me in a powerful way.

"I was thinking: ’What if they did that to my son?’ That is not democracy. ... I don’t want these people to govern my country."

The other side has also been galvanised.

Catalans who oppose independence previously kept a low profile. Coming out as a unionist, they said, would have resulted in scorn, insults and even accusations of treason from pro-independence friends and neighbours.

But in the aftermath of the referendum they gathered for the first time in mass rallies similar in size to those achieved by the independence movement.

Cristina Calaco, 51, said she was so appalled by the way the secessionist leaders unilaterally pushed through the referendum, "I wanted to pack my bags and leave Catalonia".

After seeing unionists with Spanish flags on the streets, she was emboldened to publicly display her allegiance to Spain.

These days, when pro-independence neighbours bang pots and pans in noisy balcony protests, she said she opens her window and shouts "Viva Espana" - long live Spain.

Spain’s heavy-handed response may have raised eyebrows in Europe, but it did not lead to any significant support for Catalan secession.

No European Union country has recognised the declaration of independence that Catalonia’s parliament adopted on October 27.

On the surface, independence now seems further away than before the referendum. The Spanish government applied never-before-used constitutional powers take direct control of the region. The plan is to restore autonomy after Thursday’s election produces a new regional government.

However, the Catalans supporting a total break-up with Spain now seem more committed than ever, saying the government’s tough response showed the true nature of the Spanish state.

"They don’t realise how many people they converted," said Ana Pousa, 38, who was born in the north-western Galicia region but grew up in Catalonia and now hesitates to call herself Spanish.

The movement for secession to a large extent is driven by the notion that Catalonia’s history, culture and language make it separate from Spain. It is also a matter of economics: Wealthy Catalonia pays more taxes to Madrid than it gets back in government handouts, something that frustrated many Catalans during the deep recession which started in 2008.

But there is also a sense of victimhood that can be hard to grasp for outsiders.

Independence activists say they are being repressed by the Spanish government, drawing parallels to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, when Catalans were banned from speaking their language in public.

On a square in Barcelona this week, some activists even made comparisons to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

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