Barcelona (AFP) - Catalonia is in the final stretch before pivotal elections Thursday that could determine the course of a secession crisis that has thrown Spain into turmoil and rattled the European Union.
It is a campaign where the star candidates are in exile or in jail and where pro- and anti-independence parties for the December 21 polls are still neck-and-neck.
The upcoming vote has also been closely scrutinised in neighbouring countries and the EU as a whole, with the bloc is still reeling from Britain's shock decision to leave.
"We have never seen so much interest from Spain or from the world in elections of a regional nature," Narciso Michavila, head of the GAD3 polling firm, told the FAES think tank Friday.
- Surreal campaign -
In the polls Catalans will elect 135 lawmakers in the regional parliament, which has been dominated by pro-independence parties since 2015.
All eyes are on whether the three separatist parties will maintain their absolute majority, and if they do, whether they will make another bid to break from Spain after their first attempt failed.
The Catalan parliament voted to declare unilateral independence on October 27. But it was short-lived as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sacked the regional government, dissolved the assembly and called snap elections to try and nip separatism in the bud.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont promptly fled to Belgium knowing he would likely be charged for rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds, while his deputy Oriol Junqueras remained in Spain, only to be jailed pending an investigation into the same charges.
As such, their campaigning has been surreal.
At the head of a list called Together for Catalonia, Puigdemont has campaigned from afar, using video appearances and social media.
Some 45,000 supporters even travelled to Belgium to see him on December 7.
He claims the elections are the "second round" of an independence referendum held on October 1 despite a court ban, in which Catalan leaders said 90 percent voted to break from Spain, although only 43 percent turned out in a vote marred by police brutality.
Junqueras, meanwhile, is behind bars but remains the chief candidate for his Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party, which is favourite in many opinion polls.
The separatists' campaign is centred on denouncing alleged rights violations and "repression" by the central government, but it is unclear what stance they will take if they win.
Some want to engineer another breakaway from Spain, while others say Catalonia isn't ready and needs more time.
- Future of Europe 'at stake' -
For their part, the parties that back staying with Spain accuse the separatists of damaging Catalonia, one of the country's economic powerhouses.
"The harm has been done and it was very big," Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said last week, pointing to a drop in tourism.
Ines Arrimadas, the head of centre-right, anti-independence party Ciudadanos in Catalonia, has promised to bring Catalans back together by focusing on crucial issues such as unemployment, investment and tourism.
It is an argument that has drawn support from prominent European figures such as former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
Speaking at a campaign meeting Saturday alongside Arrimadas, he insisted "the future of Europe is at stake".
"If Spain were to break up... then the future of Europe would collapse," he said.
Opinion polls show ERC and Ciudadanos neck-and-neck as favourites to win the most seats.
Voters are highly mobilised, and a record turnout is expected.
But neither separatist nor pro-unity parties are predicted to get a decisive majority in parliament, which could lead to lengthy negotiations to form a regional government.
"Forming a government will be very complex, even if the pro-independence bloc wins the election," said political analyst Pablo Simon.
Unlike elections in 2015 when they joined forces, ERC and Puigdemont's PDeCAT party are running on separate tickets as rifts have emerged between them.
But opinion polls still suggest the most likely scenario is for a separatist coalition to remain in power in Catalonia, even if weakened.
And the elections could even lead to a surreal situation where an exiled or jailed Catalan leader is sworn in.