Separatist parties set to lose power in Catalan regional election, polls show

<span>Socialist party of Catalonia candidate Salvador Illa (centre) and others on the day of Catalonia's regional election, 12 May.</span><span>Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters</span>
Socialist party of Catalonia candidate Salvador Illa (centre) and others on the day of Catalonia's regional election, 12 May.Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters

Separatist parties are in danger of losing their decade-long hold of power in Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region, with the pro-union Socialist party poised to win the most votes in Sunday’s election, according to a near-complete count of the ballots.

The four pro-independence parties, led by the Together party of former regional president Carles Puigdemont, were set to get a total of 61 seats, short of the key figure of 68 seats needed for a majority in the chamber.

The Socialists, led by former health minister Salvador Illa, were on course to win 42 seats, up from 33 in 2021, when they also barely won the most votes but were unable to form a government.

The Socialists will still need to earn the backing of other parties to put Illa in charge. Dealmaking in the coming days, perhaps weeks, will be key to forming a government. Neither a hung parliament nor a new election is out of the question.

Related: Catalan election gives voters chance to leave ‘lost decade’, says Salvador Illa

But Illa’s surge should bode well for the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and the Socialists before European parliament elections next month.

The snap election was called in March by Catalonia’s ERC president, Pere Aragonès, after opposition parties voted down the budget proposed by his minority government.

The ERC (Republican Left party) had governed in coalition with Junts, which is led by the self-exiled former Catalan president Puigdemont, until festering disagreements led the latter to abandon the government in October 2022.

Sunday’s vote comes six and a half years after Puigdemont plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in decades by staging an unlawful, unilateral referendum on regional independence and following it up with a unilateral declaration of independence.

The conservative Spanish government of the time responded by sending in thousands of police officers to stop people voting, often violently. It then sacked Puigdemont and his cabinet, dissolved the regional parliament and took direct control of Catalonia. Puigdemont fled Spain to avoid arrest, leaving other key figures in the independence movement to face trial and prison.

Tempers have cooled and tensions lowered since Sánchez became prime minister in 2018. Almost three years ago, Sánchez pardoned nine independence leaders over their role in the failed push to secede, and called for a new “era of dialogue and understanding”. Although the pardons were controversial, they were nothing like as contentious as the amnesty law that Sánchez introduced in April in order to win the support of the ERC and Junts and thereby secure his return to office after last summer’s inconclusive general election.

The law – whose most high-profile beneficiary is Puigdemont – will apply to about 400 people involved in the symbolic independence referendum of November 2014 and the poll that followed three years later.

Polls had consistently pointed to a win for the PSC. Illa has acknowledged that some people remain unconvinced by the amnesty, which the People’s party and others have decried as a cynical, self-serving and craven piece of political manoeuvring by Sánchez, but he has said the move and other conciliatory gestures have greatly reduced tensions.

He accused the ERC and Junts of being too obsessed with independence to improve Catalonia’s declining public services or to prepare for the drought in the region over the past three years.

In an interview with the Guardian on Friday, Illa said a PSC-led government would allow Catalonia to move past what he called a lost decade of rule by the ERC and Junts.

“This election could – and should – open a new era in Catalonia that I’d define in two words: the verbs ‘unite’ and ‘serve’,” he said. “When you talk to people about what matters to them, they talk about the drought, about education – which was always excellent in Catalonia, but which is now lagging behind the rest of Spain – about infrastructure, about safety, about healthcare.”

Puigdemont, who is preparing to return to Spain once the amnesty law takes effect, has said his party may abandon its support for Sánchez if it does not like the composition of a PSC-led government.

During a final campaign rally in the south of France on Friday, Puigdemont appealed for the faithful to come out and vote “This vote will be a banged fist on the table – a way of saying ‘enough!’,” he told supporters. “Enough of mistreating our language and culture and saying sorry for who we want to be. The moment to say ‘enough!’ is now – saying it the day after the election will be too late.”

Aragonès also urged pro-independence voters to turn out in force. “I ask you to fill the ballot boxes with republican votes,” he said on Friday. “To build a future of dignity and freedom. For independence, social justice, against the monarchy and against corruption, and in favour of the whole of Catalonia.”

Recent polls suggest the appetite for an independent Catalonia continues to diminish. At the height of the crisis in October 2017, a survey by the Catalan government’s centre for opinion studies found that 48.7% of Catalans supported independence and 43.6% did not. A poll in March from the same centre found 51% were against and 42% in favour.

Associated Press contributed to this report