Catalan Vote Will Test Separatist Movement

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- The strength of the separatist movement in Spain's northeastern Catalonia is being tested on Sunday as 5.3 million voters are called to cast ballots in a regional election held under tight restrictions to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Salvador Illa, who was in charge of Spain's coronavirus response as its health minister until last month, will lead the ticket of the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Snchez. Illa is hoping to end the hold pro-independence lawmakers have held in the regional parliament for the past decade.

Polls, however, predict a tight race between the Socialists and the two leading pro-secession parties, the left-wing Republic Left of Catalonia and the center-right Together for Catalonia.

The goal of separatists is to not only maintain their slim majority of the Catalan parliament based in Barcelona, but also try to break the 50% barrier of the popular vote for the first time.

The wealthy region, with its own language spoken alongside Spanish, has been the source of Spain's biggest political crisis in decades since separatists leaders failed in a 2017 secession bid in defiance of court warnings it was unconstitutional. Several of those leaders ended up in prison, while others fled to other European countries.

With Spain still suffering from a post-Christmas spike in coronavirus infections, the vote is being held under strict health regulations. Voters must wear face masks, use the hand disinfectant provided at polling stations, and remain at least 1.5 meters apart while queuing.

Those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 are encouraged to vote between 9 a.m. and noon. The general population is supposed to vote from noon until 7 p.m. That leaves the final hour until polls close at 8 p.m. for voters who are either infected or quarantined due to recent contact with an infected person.

Despite more than 20,000 people requesting to be relieved from duty of working the polls, voting went off without a hitch at the vast majority of polling stations, according to authorities. Still, citizens tapped for election day duty expressed their concern for the health situation.

"You don't feel safe. You are exposed (to contagion)," said 35-year-old Miriam Martnez, working at a polling station set up at a fresh produce market in Barcelona. "You are inside a space for many hours, which although it is ventilated, is still closed and you are in contact with a lot of people.(...) But it is what we have to do."

Preliminary results are expected to start being announced by government officials around 10:00 p.m., but a record number of mail-in votes may mean the full results will take longer than usual.

And a potential future regional government will likely hinge on deal-making between parties that could take days or longer to conclude.