Spain PM clashes with rivals over Catalonia in election debate

Spain's Prime Minister faced an onslaught of criticism Monday from his right-wing rivals over Catalonia's secession crisis in a testy four-way debate ahead of elections, while he warned them against cosying up to the far-right.

Spain PM clashes with rivals over Catalonia in election debate
Conservative Popular Party (PP) leader Pablo Casado, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Albert Rivera of centre-right party Ciudadanos and Pablo Iglesias of far-left Podemos. Photo: Screenshot RT

The debate on Spain's public television brought together the four main candidates for Sunday's general election — Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, conservative Popular Party (PP) leader Pablo Casado, Albert Rivera of centre-right party Ciudadanos and Pablo Iglesias of far-left Podemos.

“Those who want to break up Spain have their favourite candidate in Sanchez,” Casado said, standing behind a lectern in the studio, the three other candidates in a semi-circle next to him.

“I want a prime minister who doesn't kneel down in front of those who want to break Spain,” added Rivera, a framed photo of Sanchez talking to Catalonia's separatist leader Quim Torra on his lectern in front of him.

The northeastern region's independence drive is an explosive issue ahead of these early elections, which Sanchez called after his minority government failed to get support for its 2019 budget.

Casado and Rivera both accuse Sanchez of betraying Spain for attempting to negotiate with Catalan separatists since he came to power in June after ousting then conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy with a no-confidence motion.

They also accuse him of cosying up to Catalan separatist lawmakers in the national parliament who supported the motion to oust Rajoy and were key to propping up Sanchez's minority government.

Their refusal to back the budget prompted the early elections.

Far-right warning

Sanchez defended himself, stressing he would never give his consent to an independence referendum.

But he insisted dialogue was the way forward to avoid a repeat of a failed secession bid in October 2017 marked by an illegal referendum.

Exasperated, he said: “I've been putting up with all these lies for 10 months — that I've agreed to a referendum, that I've sold Spain…”

Equally exasperated was Iglesias, whose far-left party worked with Sanchez in his 10 months in power.

“This debate is being watched outside Spain,” he said, the only candidate to opt for a casual shirt and trousers rather than a suit and tie.

“I think this debate is serious enough for us not to show each other photos or throw paper at each other, and talk with a bit of seriousness.”

Sanchez too went on the offensive, accusing Rivera and Casado of cosying up to far-right party Vox, which burst onto the political scene in December regional elections in Andalusia.

Electoral authorities barred Vox leader Santiago Abascal from taking part in a televised debate, citing his party's lack of national parliamentary representation.

Having won 12 seats in Andalusia's regional parliament, however, the ultra-nationalist and anti-immigration party's support was key to helping the PP and Ciudadanos take power in the southern region that had traditionally been a socialist stronghold.

Sanchez warned that could happen at a national level.

“I thought that (Donald) Trump wouldn't win and he won. I thought Brexit wouldn't happen and it did,” he said.

“I thought that in Andalusia the PP, Ciudadanos and the far-right wouldn't reach agreements and they did.”

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Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election

Spain's central government on Thursday said the announcement of snap elections in Catalonia would delay planned talks between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the region's separatist leadership.

Madrid puts off separatist talks over Catalan snap election
Catalan regional president Quim Torra (R) meets with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at the Palacio de Pedralbes in Barcelona on December 20, 2018.Photo: AFP

News that the regional election would be brought forward was announced by regional president Quim Torra on Wednesday but he did not give a date, suggesting some time after mid-March.

The date was brought forward following a major dispute between Catalonia's two ruling separatist parties, Together for Catalonia (JxC) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

The announcement came ahead of a key February 6 meeting in Barcelona between Torra and Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to lay the ground for talks on resolving the separatist conflict.

In response, Sanchez's office said the meeting would go ahead but that the negotiations would not begin until a new regional government was in place.   

“The government is hoping to be able to begin the dialogue after the Catalan people have spoken… as soon as the elections are over and there is a new (regional) government, then we will begin talking,” said a statement.

“The government remains willing to start the process of dialogue with the Catalan institutions to resolve the political conflict.”

The talks had been agreed as part of a deal with ERC in exchange for its support in getting Sanchez through a key investiture vote earlier this month.   

But the delay was swiftly denounced by the ERC as a “flagrant breach of the agreement which was completely irresponsible,” its party spokesman Sergi Sabria said.

Sanchez, who himself is in a fragile position at the head of a minority coalition government, still needs ERC's support to pass Spain's own much delayed national budget.

In a radio interview Thursday, Torra said he would bring up the right to self-determination and amnesty for the nine jailed Catalan separatist leaders when he meets Sanchez — both of which have already been rejected out of hand by the Socialist leader.