MADRID — As voters in Catalonia ready themselves for Thursday's election results, they will not be alone in anxious anticipation. Nobody has bet more on the outcome than Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has urged Catalans to step back from what he sees as an illegal, reckless insistence on independence.
The ballot comes less than two months after Catalans voted to secede from Spain and unilaterally declared independence, prompting Rajoy to dissolve the rebellious regional Parliament and call for early elections — in the hope that voters would sweep aside the secessionist politicians.
But the last opinion polls taken before the parliamentary election show support for the pro-independence and unionist parties evenly divided. It is possible that Thursday's election will resolve nothing and that Rajoy and the central government will be left with a divided, restive Catalonia.
In another possible blow, the last pre-election surveys suggest that Rajoy's Popular Party could lose seats in the regional election — even after the prime minister made a personal appeal for a massive turnout among his supporters.
Many voters who oppose a breakaway Catalonia appear ready to punch the ballot for the centrist, reformist Ciudadanos, or Citizens, party.
Inés Arrimadas, the leader of the Citizens party in Catalonia, declared, "If we govern, our priority is going to be social policies, not the secessionist process."
She said the people want to move on. The 2 million people in Catalonia who voted for independence in October might disagree.
In an interview with the news outlet El Pais, Arrimadas warned that if separatists win, "everything will repeat itself like a deja-vu" and that Madrid and Barcelona will again find themselves locked in confrontation, with secessionist leaders unable to take on their posts, because they are in jail or in exile.
If Rajoy's surrogates slip further in Catalonia, one reason might be a corruption scandal swirling around his party in a long-running case targeting dozens of business and political figures in a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme.
It is not only the Spanish government that is chewing its nails. Most of Spain and its powerful business groups oppose an independent Catalonia.
European leaders, too, have made clear they would not recognize an independent Catalonia and want the matter settled and the situation returned to "constitutional normalcy," as Rajoy puts it.
In the aftermath of the chaotic independence referendum — judged illegal by the constitutional courts — more than 2,000 companies have decided to uproot their fiscal headquarters from Catalonia to seek stability elsewhere in Spain.
Though the issue of Catalonia's future stirs deep passions in the region, most people in Madrid previously saw the Catalan question as a marginal issue.
"No one in Madrid nor in the rest of Spain would have predicted a few years ago that this institutional crisis would play out this way," said Joan Navarro, Madrid-based partner at the consulting firm Llorente & Cuenca. "But today, we Spaniards are watching with moderation and hope that this conflict is solved as quickly as possible."
"The business community is watching closely what is happening in Catalonia," Navarro said, "because everything suggests that the election results tomorrow lead to two scenarios — that of instability or that of strengthening the rhythm of economic growth."
If the gravity of the Catalan issue caught Madrid's citizens by surprise, it also stirred their sense of solidarity with the people of Catalonia who want to remain in Spain — who call themselves the "silent majority."
"I was posting images and stories of Catalans who spoke out against independence on my Facebook," said Madrid resident Nuria Stisin. "I was proud of them for standing up. I thought it was very brave of them because it wasn't easy."
The pro-independence narrative in Catalonia often paints those who want to remain in Spain as "fascists" or "far right," nostalgic for life under the dictator Francisco Franco. But in Madrid the support for union crosses political lines.
"There are plenty of people on the left in Spain who are strongly pro-union, who see what's happening in Catalonia as a manipulation," said Ken Dubin, a political scientist at IE Business School in Madrid.
Some in Madrid hope the election is a way to peacefully end the bitterness stirred between secessionists and unionists, but analysts predict that will not be easy.
"Even though for years we've known that this was a serious concern, when you looked at polls up through September, almost nobody outside of Catalonia seemed worried about it," said Lluis Orriols, a sociology professor at Madrid's Carlos III University. "What's more, they saw it as a nuisance. That has changed."
"The Spanish flags are still flying," Orriols said, "but the Catalan question continues to generate concern among the Spanish population, which now sees it as one of the main challenges in the country."
Booth reported from Barcelona.