The highly polarized Catalan parliament elections set for Dec. 21 is shaping up as a close fight between Catalans who support secession and those who favor remaining in Spain. Voters are choosing regional lawmakers and top government officials to replace the pro-independence officials removed by the national government in late October.
Hours before pro-secession parties held evening rallies to launch their campaigns, a Supreme Court judge in Madrid ruled that four prominent members of the region's independence movement must remain jailed without bail. They include former regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who heads the slate of the left-republican ERC party. Junqueras was unseated in late October along with former President Carles Puigdemont and the rest of Puigdemont's Cabinet after regional lawmakers passed a declaration of independence that Spanish authorities deemed illegal.
Six other Catalan politicians who had been jailed with Junqueras since early November were released late Monday after the posting of 100,000-euro ($118,000) bail set earlier for them by a Supreme Court judge.
Meanwhile, Puigdemont and four of his separatist allies learned Monday that a decision on Spain's request for their extraditions from Belgium will be made Dec. 14. That is one week before the elections, in which Puigdemont is leading his pro-independence party's ticket as its presidential candidate.
However, a final decision may not come until well after the election because of appeals.
The five Catalan officials fled to Belgium and are refusing to return to Spain to face possible charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement over the push for independence. The charges carry maximum penalties of decades in prison.
Puigdemont's Belgian defense lawyer, Paul Bekaert, insisted there are no grounds for extradition because the Spanish charges were not punishable in Belgium.
"We also highlighted the danger for the impediment of their human rights in Spain," Bekaert said.
Hours after the judge postponed deciding his fate, Puigdemont addressed a political rally in Catalonia via video conference at the official midnight kickoff of the campaign.
Puigdemont told the other candidates running for his Together for Catalonia list that the vote should be "the second part" of the referendum that his government held on secession Oct. 1 despite it being banned by Spain's highest court.
"The results of Oct. 1 are still valid," Puigdemont told Catalan public television TV3. "There are many of us who don't give the Spanish government the authority to dissolve a legitimate legislature."
The Spanish government has said the early election is an attempt to find a democratic way out of the nation's worst crisis in nearly four decades. Polls predict a close race between the pro- and anti-independence camps.
A government-run poll published Monday indicated that pro-independence parties would lose their slim majority in Catalonia's parliament. It had ERC, Together for Catalonia and the far-left anti-establishment CUP party winning 66 or 67 of the parliament's 135 seats.
The poll forecast a boost for the anti-independence Citizens party, which could dispute the victory with the pro-secession ERC.
"The secession movement is a black hole that has swallowed everything up in recent years," Ines Arrimadas, Citizens' leading candidate, told TV3. "We have it in our hands to end the independence movement and start a new era for Catalonia."
The CIS survey said the poll had a margin of error of two percentage points. The poll of 3,000 people was conducted by telephone Nov. 23-27.
Before campaigning officially started, Catalan pro-independence groups held protests in front of town halls to oppose the Supreme Court's decision to keep some of the independence movement's leaders in custody.
Pilar Gonzalez, 76, said while walking her dog in Barcelona that the jailed Catalan political leaders were "political prisoners." But 53-year-old contractor Jose Luis Aguirre said the attempt to unilaterally break away from Spain "is an act that cannot be allowed."
In the hope of being freed, Junqueras and the other jailed politicians pledged last week to give up on efforts to seek unilateral independence for the wealthy northeastern region. But Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena said Monday that it remains to be seen if Junqueras' pledge was "truthful and real."
ERC spokeswoman Marta Rovira described the jailing as "a covert attempt" by Spain's central authorities in Madrid to get ERC out of the picture before this month's voting.
"This is a very clear attempt to win these elections without political adversaries," she said.
Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido was unmoved by the arguments of Junqueras' supporters.
"Those who commit criminal acts must place themselves at the mercy of legal rulings," Zoido said.
The Supreme Court judge also upheld custody orders without bail for the former regional interior minister, Joaquim Forn, and the leaders of Assemblea Nacional Catalan and Omnium Cultural, two grassroots groups that have been the main drivers of the separatist bid.
Puigdemont and the other separatist leaders claim a mandate for independence from the Oct. 1 referendum, which was boycotted by parties against secession. The vote drew 43 percent of the electorate, failed to meet international standards, and was marred by police raids.
Spain's constitution says that the nation is "indivisible" and that matters of national sovereignty pertain to its national parliament in Madrid, where Catalan secessionists are represented.
Associated Press writer Aritz Parra reported this story in Madrid and AP writer Raf Casert reported from Brussels. AP writer Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.
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