BARCELONA, Spain — Catalonia’s regional election on Thursday is being fought by a motley crew of candidates, including the fugitive ex-president, the former vice president who’s jailed near Madrid and a newcomer who’s emerged as the homegrown response to Catalan separatism.
But the race could be decided by a minority party that opposes independence from Spain, but wants a binding referendum on the issue.
Here is a look at the leading Catalan politicians disputing the hotly-contested election:
The 54-year-old former journalist has become Spain’s enemy No. 1.
Puigdemont is trying to win back the Catalan regional presidency two months after he was removed from office by Spain’s central government following an illegal declaration of independence by Catalonia’s parliament.
But Puigdemont fled to Brussels instead of facing questioning in Spain on suspicion of rebellion and sedition, among other possible crimes.
Since Spanish law can only bar someone from political activity if they have been convicted, Puigdemont is running a campaign for his “Together For Catalonia” party from Belgium.
Puigdemont hopes that a win at the polls would put pressure on Spain to allow him to avoid jail if he returned.
Unlike Puigdemont, his former No. 2 is already behind bars.
Junqueras heeded a Spanish summons and was jailed pending the conclusion of an investigation into the Oct. 27 declaration of independence.
A charismatic true believer in the secession cause, the Catalan ex-vice president is trying to lead his pro-secession Republican Left party from a prison outside Madrid.
Polls consistently show that Republican Left has the best chance of being the party that wins the most votes, although it would be nowhere near an outright majority.
But with Junqueras’ legal future looking as bleak as Puigdemont’s, the No. 2 on the Republican Left’s list, Marta Rovira, is in the best position of all the separatists to become head of a ruling coalition.
Originally from southern Spain but fluent in Catalan, the 36-year-old Ines Arrimadas personifies the counter-narrative to Catalan separatism.
Arrimadas has had a spectacular rise since her start in politics in 2012 with the pro-business Citizens party, which struck a nerve with Catalans who also feel Spanish after it was founded in Barcelona 11 years ago as a homegrown response to the secession movement.
Despite her lack of experience, she proved to be a strong leader of the opposition in the last legislature of the Catalan parliament and has successfully taken up the banner of the anti-secessionist cause.
While against independence, Iceta has staked claim to the middle ground as the voice of calm reason in the highly polarized campaign.
He is poised to help Spain’s Socialists rebound in Catalonia after suffering huge losses during the recent rise of separatist sentiment.
Made famous for busting some impromptu dance moves at a campaign event in the last elections, the 57-year-old Iceta has earned the respect of adversaries for his mild manners and calls for dialogue.
That goodwill could give him an outside chance of heading a coalition of forces if the votes fall right on election night.
XAVIER GARCIA ALBIOL
Garcia Albiol is a tall man facing an even taller task.
The former youth basketball player is the candidate of Spain’s ruling Popular Party in Catalonia.
But as resilient as Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservatives are in Spain’s national elections, they are facing a debacle in Catalonia.
Far from being seen as the savior of anti-secession Catalans, polls indicate that the Popular Party will be hard pressed to keep its residual 8.5 percent of the vote from 2015.
Riera is the latest face of the far-left CUP party, which represents the most radical elements of the secession movement.
Although it only had 10 seats in the 135-seat parliament, support from its lawmakers was key to keeping Puigdemont’s coalition in office and the independence drive alive over the past two years. CUP advocates a campaign of disobedience.
Riera recently said that “obviously we are already living in a republic” that was only “interrupted” by the takeover by Spain’s central authorities.
If the forecasts prove true, then Domenech may get to play kingmaker.
His leftist Catalunya en Comu party, the local variant of Spain’s Podemos, is the only party of the seven on the slate that doesn’t take a clear stand on the burning question of independence.
Domenech has criticized separatists for breaking the law to attempt their breakaway, while also calling Spain’s resulting intervention in the regional government heavy-handed.
Polls show that Domenech’s party could be left holding the key to support either a government formed by a coalition of pro-secession parties or one made up of parties favoring a unified Spain.
Domenech’s party wants a legal referendum on Catalan independence.
This story has been corrected to show that Ines Arrimadas is 36, not 34.