Catalonia, battleground in Spain's snap elections

Barcelona (AFP) –


After a failed secession bid, Catalonia is a key battleground in Spain's general election on Sunday, and the main line of attack for conservatives against Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Sanchez may depend on Catalan separatist parties to remain in power after the vote, the first since the region's separatist bid.

During his 10 months in office, they have taken on a decisive role in national politics.

Sanchez came to power in June 2018 by winning a surprise no-confidence vote against conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy with the support of Catalan separatist parties, Basque nationalists and the far-left Podemos party.

But Catalan separatists also forced Sanchez to call early elections by refusing in February to back his minority government's 2019 draft budget.

Since the start of the campaign, conservative Spanish parties have repeatedly accused Sanchez of being a traitor for having tried to negotiate with the separatists.

"Catalonia is the focus of the election, especially for the right," said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

- 'Hostage' to separatists -

The two televised election debates held this week reflected this.

"You are hostage to those who want to break up Spain," the leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, told Sanchez.

Albert Rivera, the leader of centre-right Ciudadanos, accused the Socialists of governing "for those who want to liquidate Spain".

Speaking late Tuesday at a packed bullfighting ring in the outskirts of Madrid, the leader of upstart far-right party Vox, Santiago Abascal, urged supporters to "defend Spain in the face of the separatists".

The rise in popularity of Vox, which has taken a hardline against Catalan separatism, has reinforced the issue's impact.

Faced with such criticism, Sanchez has repeatedly said he will never agree to the separatists' demand for an independence referendum.

Polls suggest the Socialists will increase the number of seats they hold in parliament on Sunday, but fall short of an absolute majority.

"The greatest weakness the Socialists have is the territorial issue, which after all, is what led to fresh elections," noted Teneo Intelligence analyst Antonio Barroso.

- 'Ibuprofen policy' -

Foreign Minister Josep Borrell has dubbed the government's bid to reduce tension sparked by Catalonia's decision to push ahead with an independence referendum in October 2017 as an "ibuprofen policy" in reference to a widely used pain killer.

The Catalan decision was made despite a court ban, and was followed by a failed declaration of independence.

Conservatives are now calling for the central government to again impose direct rule over Catalonia, as it did after the independence declaration.

"The biggest difference between left and right today in Spain is the degree of excitement over the national (unity) question. The right gets very excited while the left calls for calm" said political scientist Joan Botella of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Polls point to a victory in Catalonia for the Socialists or the more moderate of region's two main separatist parties, the ERC, which could help Sanchez return to power.

ERC leader and former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras, who is on trial for rebellion at Spain's Supreme Court in Madrid over his role in Catalonia's failed independence bid, has hinted that his formation could back Sanchez's bid to form a new government after the elections.

"We will not draw any red line," he said Friday during a press conference from the Madrid jail where he is being held, adding the ERC would to everything it could to block a conservative government backed by Vox from coming to power.

But the support of the separatists could prove to be a poisoned chalice, especially if the 12 Catalan separatist leaders on trial over the independence bid get heavy jail terms.

"The Socialists have understood that holding hands with Catalan separatists is a gift for the right and if it can avoid this, it will," said Botella.