Catalonia back in focus as Spain's Socialists seek to form government
By Ashifa Kassam and Joan Faus
MADRID/BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spain's ruling Socialists courted Catalan separatists on Thursday, as they began the tough process of winning enough support in a fragmented parliament to sustain a coalition government with the far-left Unidas Podemos party.
Socialist acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez won an election on Sunday. But his 120 seats, combined with the 35 won by Podemos, leave them short of a majority in the 350-seat parliament, giving the 13 elected lawmakers of the left-wing separatist ERC party a potential kingmaker role in unblocking the political stalemate in Madrid.
Catalonia's independence drive had loomed large over the election campaign, after anger at long jail sentences for nine separatist leaders sparked protests - at times violent - and prompted national parties, including the Socialists, to harden their stance on Spain's most economically important region.
After a meeting between senior Socialist and ERC officials, the Catalan party said in a statement it had not been persuaded to back Sanchez because it had been given no guarantee that the Socialists would "abandon the repressive way" in Catalonia, but added that the two sides would keep in contact.
"PSOE and Unidas Podemos are the only two political organizations at a national level that are committed to dialogue within the constitution in order to resolve the political crisis in Catalonia," said Sanchez at a press briefing after ERC's statement.
The separatist party says its support in parliament is conditional on receiving an offer of dialogue on its independence push, its spokesperson Marta Vilalta told Reuters.
"If they are willing to sit down to talk, to recognize that there is a political problem and that has to be resolved politically ... we are willing to value what they would put over the table," Vilalta said on Wednesday, a day before the first meeting between ERC and the Socialists.
She added that the talks on Spain's prime minister would be unrelated to the stalled negotiations in Catalonia over its budget, in which Podemos will likely have the key votes and that, if not approved, could lead to a snap regional election.
ERC abstained in a vote in parliament in July in which Sanchez failed to get enough support for a new term, which eventually prompted this month's election.
But much has changed since then, Vilalta said, referring to the court verdict that sentenced Oriol Junqueras, the party's chairman and former deputy leader of the Catalan government, to 13 years in jail over Catalonia's failed independence bid in 2017.
Sanchez, who opposes secession and a referendum, favored talks with the Catalan separatist government at the beginning of his term, but the talks collapsed in February.
(Reporting by Ashifa Kassam, Belen Carreno and Joan Faus; Editing by Alex Richardson)