A woman casts her vote at a polling station in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat during regional elections in Catalonia on February 14, 2021 AFP
Voting has started in Spain's northeastern Catalonia on Sunday as 5.3 million voters are called to cast ballots in a regional election that will test the region's secessionist movement.
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 Sanchez. 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.
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.