Catalan separatists reject Socialist-led government

Pere Aragonès, the leader of the strongest pro-independence party after Catalonia’s regional election, has ruled out helping install a government led by the poll-winning Socialists — even if Madrid agrees to pardon jailed separatist leaders.

After Sunday’s election, Salvador Illa, top candidate of the pro-union Socialists, suggested forming a regional government with the Catalan branch of the left-wing Podemos, En Comú Podem. But that would require Catalonia’s Republican Left (ERC) to abstain in the key regional assembly vote — and party chief Aragonès told POLITICO that’s out of the question.

Instead, Aragonès said he plans to lead a government of his own, composed of pro-independence parties as well as others that do not take a position on separation from Spain but may be open to a legal and binding referendum on the issue.

Aragonès said his stance would not change even if the national government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pardons Catalan leaders jailed over their failed 2017 independence bid, including former ERC leader Oriol Junqueras.

“For us, that question cannot form part of bargaining to form a government in Catalonia,” Aragonès said. “The first ones who would not accept it would be those affected. It would be treating the prisoners as hostages.”

Sánchez has neither ruled out a pardon nor publicly discussed the possibility, stressing the need to respect the division of powers between the judiciary and the executive. But the legal process that could lead to a pardon has already kicked off.

The Supreme Court is widely expected to oppose a pardon, but the Spanish Cabinet has the last word. A decision might yet be several months away.

Illa, internationally known as Spain’s former health minister, delivered a historic result for the Socialists in Sunday’s election, winning 23 percent of the vote and 33 of the 135 seats at stake.

He told POLITICO he is determined to put himself forward in the assembly as a candidate to lead the government, arguing it is his duty to do so after coming first in the election.

“Catalonia has voted for turning the page and starting a new time,” Illa said.

He presented the election result as a clear demand from voters to leave behind the split between separatists and unionists that has dominated Catalan politics for a decade.

“The political parties that form part of any eventual government that persists in what has already failed will pay a very high political price because that is going against what citizens want,” Illa stressed.

But Aragonès said he too wants a new approach — by forming a government that would go beyond pro-independence parties and seek to negotiate with Madrid for a binding referendum, rather than taking a unilateral path.

His party also won 33 seats, the same as the Socialists, albeit with a share of the vote that was about 2 percentage points lower.

“We believe it is very important that the next legislature is focused on the issue of the right to self-determination and the referendum,” Aragonès said. “In that sense, we must go beyond the alliances with strictly independentist forces.”

His model is the U.K., where the British government agreed to give Scotland the power to hold a referendum on independence in 2014.

Aragonès said the election result means ERC’s project “to apply the Scottish way in Catalonia has been greatly strengthened.”

Whether Madrid sees things the same way is another matter. The Spanish government is set to start negotiations with the pro-independence forces of Catalonia with the aim of finding a solution to the political turmoil in the region. But there are no indications yet to suggest Sánchez would grant Catalonia a referendum.

Aragonès’ prospects of forming a government look more promising than those of Illa. If ERC can build an alliance with two other separatist parties, that bloc would represent more than 50 percent of the vote and command an absolute majority in the regional assembly.

Negotiations within the independence camp will not be straightforward, however. ERC has a difficult relationship with the JxCat party of former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, which has advocated a more unilateral approach to independence.

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