Government to propose postponing election for health reasons as parties remain divided
Date of vote to be announced on January 15 as up to 216,000 people could be in quarantine
After a 2020 politically marked by frequent disagreements between Catalonia's government coalition party members, pro-independence Esquerra Republicana (ERC) and Junts per Catalunya (JxCat), as well as the Supreme Court ruling upholding former president Quim Torra's disqualification from office, Catalans are set to head to the polls on February 14.
But now, as the state of the pandemic worsens, a number of politicians and health authorities question whether holding Catalonia's early election in a month's time is safe from a health and safety perspective, with pronounced divisions emerging amongst parties concerning a potential delay. On Wednesday, the government announced it would propose delaying the election on Friday if parties fail to find consensus, meaning it could possibly take place in May or June.
"From an epidemiological point of view, it is not ideal to hold an election, but the decision is obviously not up to the Health Department," public health secretary Josep Maria Argimon stated on Wednesday, while an Ombudsperson's report released on the same day estimates that as many as 216,000 could be unable to vote in person after either having tested positive or being in close contact with someone who has.
This comes as only days after Argimon's department calculated—without taking into account the possible impact of the new UK variant—that Covid-19 cases would peak around the time of the election, meaning a number of Catalans would be quarantining and unable to vote.
According to Catalonia's Foreign Action, Institutional Relations and Transparency minister, Bernat Solé, whose department is in charge of organizing the election, the vote will not be perceived as "legitimate" if there is low turnout or if people fear for their safety. Speaking to Rac 1 and Ràdio 4 on Wednesday, Solé maintained that parties must agree on a course of action.
An inter-party meeting was held on Monday to discuss a possible delay in which members of each political force agreed that the decision, based entirely on Covid-data and health forecasts and announced on January 15, would be final. But what is each party's stance on holding the election at a later date?
"The date of the election should not be the object of partisan politics—that would be the worst thing that could happen," the left-wing pro-independence party's Marta Vilalta said on Monday. And like members of other political forces, Vilalta highlighted the importance of taking "a good look at [Covid-19] figures."
The head of JxCat in the Catalan parliament, Albert Batet, stated that his party was "ready and willing to vote." Batet also blamed the challenges to holding the election on February 14 on the parties that were in favor of barring former president Torra, of his own force, from office during the second wave of the pandemic and accused PSC of more concern for former frontrunner Miquel Iceta becoming a minister than for the election itself.
Meanwhile, Ciudadanos' Carlos Carrizosa has urged the government to set a date and to "not be afraid" to do so. Carrizosa also lamented the way in which some parties, in his view, are more worried about "electoral outcomes" than the Covid-19 crisis.
"Can we look Catalans in the eye and tell them to go out to vote because everything is under control?" he asked. "We cannot say that—whoever does is lying."
The Catalan Socialist Party is adamant the early election must be held on February 14. "Catalonia must vote five weeks from now," spokesperson Eva Granados maintained on Wednesday.
According to Granados, voting protocols are safe and it is the Catalan government's responsibility to provide citizens with "safe polling sites adapted [to health and safety requirements] the same way bars, restaurants, shops, theaters, movie theaters or schools are."
Spanish health minister Salvador Illa will be the Socialist party's presidential candidate in Catalonia rather than Miquel Iceta, meaning a postponed election could delay his replacement at the head of the ministry.
Jéssica Albiach, the frontrunner for Podemos' Catalan branch in the election, has expressed the need for there to be a "committee of experts" to determine whether an electoral delay is necessary or not.
"The decision to postpone [the election] should only be made for health reasons," Albiach said on Monday, stressing that a lack of clear messaging regarding the health crisis only confuses the population.
The far-left pro-independence party view delaying the date of the vote for health and safety reasons favorably and applauds the government's efforts to take into account each party's opinion. The anti-austerity force believes that a postponement should be coupled with further aid to society's most affected sectors.