With virus in rearview, campaign for Catalan vote kicks off

MADRID (AP) — Political parties in Spain’s Catalonia region are scheduled to start campaigning Thursday for an election set to be held in two weeks amid uncertainty due to vote fragmentation and a persistently high coronavirus infection rate.

The northeastern region loosened a ban on traveling between municipalities to allow for political rallies with reduced attendance and mask-wearing and social distancing requirements.

The election taking place as scheduled on Feb. 14 is not 100% certain. Catalonia’s High Court needs to confirm its preliminary decision earlier this month to overturn a regional government order to delay the vote for nearly three months due to health concerns.

Like the rest of Spain, Catalonia is grappling to contain a sharp increase of COVID-19 patients amid a vaccination rollout slowed down by hiccups in the supply of shots.

Although growth in the infection rate seems to be stabilizing, experts are worried about the potential impact of new virus variants with hospitals already operating at their limits.

Catalonia’s ruling coalition, which supports the region’s secession from Spain, granted prison privileges Thursday to eight politicians and activists who are serving terms ranging from nine 9 to 13 years for their roles in a failed 2017 push for Catalan independence.

The regional government’s move will allow some of them to campaign for their parties during the day before returning to prison to spend the night. Two months ago, Spain’s Supreme Court overturned the granting of similar privileges as “premature,”

A half-dozen political parties, divided along the lines of left and right, but also between support or opposition for the region’s independence, are competing for 135 seats in the regional parliament.

Several spin-offs in the ranks of Catalan separatist parties and the emergence of the far-right on the side of remaining in Spain are likely to complicate efforts to form a governing coalition after the vote.

Salvador Illa, who until this week was Spain’s health minister in charge of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, is seen as the frontrunner to become Catalonia’s next regional president. He is with Catalonia’s Socialist Party, which has not been in power in the region since 2006.

Official polls show strong support for Laura Borràs and Pere Aragonès, who represent respectively the pro-independence Together for Catalonia and Republican Left parties that are currently part of the region’s ruling coalition.

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