Voters go to polling stations in Catalonia, Spain, in what observers see as a test of strength for the pro-independence movement.
Polls opened at 0800 GMT on Sunday for about 5.5 million Catalan voters eligible to cast their ballots in the three-way competition between the Socialists and two smaller pro-independence parties, namely, the Republican Left of Catalonia and JuntsxCat (Together for Catalonia), the party of exiled former president Carles Puigdemont.
Whether the two pro-independence parties, which are currently in a ruling coalition, or the Socialists, who lead Spain's central government, win the Catalan vote, the outcome is unlikely to cause similar unrest that shook the region in 2017.
Opinion polls indicated that there would be a low turnout of voters due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus at polling stations.
The polls also indicated that a greater number of the Catalan voters were voting for the Socialists, who oppose independence, but favor dialogue with Madrid.
"It is time to reconcile, build bridges, dialogue and seek agreements within Catalonia," Socialist candidate Salvador Illa, who was Spain's health minister until two weeks ago, told Reuters.
Illa said it was time to “turn the page” on the events that have kept the region in a political gridlock.
"We have always maintained that it's better to agree on a referendum with Spain," Pere Aragones, the Esquerra Republicana party's candidate and acting Catalan head of government, told Reuters.
He said achieving a combined 50% vote share with the separatists would pave the way for the pro-independence movement to push for a referendum from a position of strength.
However, the Catalan lawyer and politician ruled out any unilateral independence move in the short run.
On October 27, 2017, then-Catalan president Puigdemont attempted to declare independence from Spain.
The Senate invoked article 155 of the constitution right after the declaration, dismissing Puigdemont and the Catalan government.
Madrid imposed direct rule on Barcelona since then while Puigdemont and other top Catalan government officials fled to Belgium. Puigdemont remains in exile in Brussels.