BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Party leaders and politicians made last-ditch appeals to undecided voters in Spain's Catalonia region Tuesday ahead of an election that polls indicate could be a close race between supporters of secession and political rivals who want to remain part of the country.
With opinion polls suggesting that more than 20 percent of the region's 5.5 million-strong electorate were undecided about who to support in Thursday's election, the final campaign rallies set out clear battle lines.
Ciutadans (Citizens) party leader Ines Arrimadas, the leading regional presidential candidate opposing independence, said she would bury the region's secession ambitions if she wins Thursday's election.
"On Thursday, we are going to awaken from this nightmare of the independence push," Arrimadas, a 34-year-old lawyer, told a crowd of supporters.
Former regional President Carles Puigdemont, the ousted separatist leader evading Spanish justice in Brussels, vowed to return to Catalonia if he's re-elected. He depicted the vote as a showdown with Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who removed Puigdemont's government from office to block Catalan independence.
"This time is not about who wins this election, it's about whether the country wins or Rajoy does," Puigdemont said in a video address streamed live from the Belgian capital to supporters back home.
The contest is being held in exceptional circumstances. The Spanish government called the election when it seized control of Catalonia, dismissed its government and dissolved the regional parliament following a declaration of independence by separatist lawmakers there Oct. 27. It then called Thursday's vote.
Several members of the ousted Cabinet, including Puigdemont, campaigned from Brussels, where they sought refuge from Spanish justice. Others are in jail in Spain on provisional rebellion charges.
Marta Rovira, the No. 2 candidate for the left-wing republican ERC party in Catalonia, said her goal is to breathe fresh life into the region's secession bid. The ERC is roughly level with Ciutadans in topping pre-election opinion polls.
"Our feeling is that the democratic mandate that we can obtain on Dec. 21 will be a democratic mandate," Rovira said. "Because these are elections called by the Spanish government, and they won't be able to deny this democratic mandate. They will have to accept it."
The ERC rally was held in the Barcelona neighborhood where Oriol Junqueras, the party's jailed leader, lives. Junqueras, Catalonia's former deputy president, was jailed in Madrid on provisional rebellion charges after backing the unilateral declaration of Catalan independence in October.
The parties of Puigdemont and Junqueras, along with a small anti-capitalist group, held a slim majority in the last parliament, enabling them to push ahead with the independence drive. It remains to be seen whether they can stick together after Thursday.
Recent polls indicate the vote will see a close race between Junqueras, Puigdemont and Ines Arrimadas of the pro-Spanish unity Ciutadans (Citizens) party.
Rajoy's Popular Party has polled around 6 percent. "Those of us who defend democracy, the Constitution and the law are on the good side of history," he told his supporters in Barcelona.
Polls predict that no group is expected to win a majority in the regional parliament.
"I expect there to be an impasse Thursday, and we are going to face quite a few weeks of attempts to form a government," said Andrew Dowling, a specialist in Catalan history at Cardiff University in Wales.
Dowling said the campaign showed pro-secession parties still had solid support, but that the anti-independence side had come to life and posed a serious challenge.
If neither bloc secures enough seats for a parliamentary majority, the key could fall on the anti-independence socialist party, PSC, and Catalunya en Comu (Catalonia in Common), the regional brand of the far-left Podemos party, which opposes independence but wants a legally binding referendum on the issue.
Spain's Rajoy has said it will return full autonomous powers to Catalonia once a law-abiding government is elected.
Polls consistently show most Catalans want the right to decide their future but are evenly divided over splitting from Spain.
Ciaran Giles contributed from Madrid. Barry Hatton contributed from Lisbon, Portugal.