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article imageCatalonia's separatist front shatters

By Daniel BOSQUE (AFP)     Oct 12, 2018 in World

Catalonia's separatist parties that brought the region to the brink of breaking away from Spain a year ago, shattered their united front this week in a struggle over strategy toward independence.

The separatists on Tuesday lost the majority they have enjoyed in the Catalan parliament since September 2015 due to a rift over how to respond to a court suspension of six jailed or exiled lawmakers accused of rebellion.

PDeCAT, the party of Catalonia's ousted president Carles Puigdemont who is in self-imposed exile in Belgium, wanted to once again defy Spain's central government by allowing its four regional MPs to vote during the opening session of the assembly despite their suspension.

But ERC, Catalonia's oldest separatist party, refused to go along with this disobedience, which would have caused legal problems for one of its most prominent leaders -- Roger Torrent, the president of the Catalan parliament.

Instead, it named replacements for its two suspended lawmakers and united with opposition parties to stop the four PDeCAT MPs from voting.

As a result Catalonia's separatist government now has the support of just 61 lawmakers in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.

Even with the backing of the small, radical separatist CUP party, the separatist camp only has 65 MPs -- down from the absolute majority of 70 seats it won in snap regional elections in December 2017.

With separatist parties now in the minority, the regional assembly rejected proposals close to the independence camp's heart, such as a symbolic proclamation of Catalonia's right to self-determination -- casting doubt over the viability of Catalan leader Quim Torra's executive.

- 'Dangerous position' -

"They will not divide us. We will go until the end," Torra said Wednesday in response to opposition calls for new elections.

His government wants to last at least until courts hand down their sentences against 16 Catalan leaders facing trial over their role in the separatist push.

Nine leaders are in Spanish jails awaiting trial while the other seven, including Puigdemont, are in exile.

Their trial is expected to start in early 2019 and separatists hope the expected harsh prison sentences which they will receive will reunite the independence movement.

"I don't think they can last so many months," Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, told AFP.

"I would not say the government will fall but it is in a dangerous position, not so much for not having a majority, but because of the internal division, because it is clear that the two parties do not get along."

Ties between ERC and PDeCAT have always been tense because they compete for the leadership of the independence movement.

"Now there is another twist: there is not just electoral competition, but also two distinct strategic visions," Bartomeus added.

- Base rebels -

The arrival in Madrid in June of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who is more open to dialogue with Catalonia then his conservative predecessor, has deepened the divisions.

Puigdemont's supporters believe the only way to advance their agenda is to keep the tension over independence high.

ERC thinks appeasement is the best way to draw more support to the separatist cause, which captured 47 percent of the vote during the last regional elections.

Torra, a longtime independence activist without previous government experience, tries to walk a tightrope.

He negotiates with Sanchez's government while at the same time calling for a "permanent mobilisation" in the streets in favour of independence.

But the separatist base is losing patience.

On October 1, on the one-year anniversary of a banned independence referendum, protesters demanded Torra's resignation and tried to break into the Catalan parliament.

Pro-independence protesters who a year ago clashed with police sent by Madrid to stop the referendum were now clashing with Catalan regional police under the orders of Torra -- and who had encouraged them to protest.

ANC, a powerful grassroots separatist organisation which in recent years has staged massive pro-independence rallies, has warned Torra that he will lose its support unless he presents before the end of the year a strategy to make an independent Catalan republic a reality.

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