(Bloomberg) -- The Catalonia drama unfolded on a new stage Tuesday with the start of a historic trial of separatist leaders in Madrid -- and it threatens to claim the scalp of a second Spanish prime minister in less than a year.
Twelve separatists leaders -- led by former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras who is facing up to 25 years in jail -- took their seats before a panel of Supreme Court judges in Madrid as the reckoning begins for the events of late 2017 when the regional government embarked on an illegal bid to split from Spain.
The hearings got under way with Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez fighting to keep alive his budget plans -- and his government.
While the institutional revolt in Catalonia is long since over, its repercussions are still shaping national politics: Sanchez needs the votes of pro-independence parties to get his budget through parliament on Wednesday and Catalan lawmakers are reluctant to be seen lining up alongside the Spanish government when their comrades are in the dock.
If Sanchez fails, Spain could face a snap election and the prospect of a right-wing coalition buoyed by anger at the Catalans in the rest of the country. The government presents its budget in parliament today with a vote on it due tomorrow.
Tens of thousands of Spaniards took to the streets of Madrid on Sunday to protest against Sanchez’s efforts to negotiate a budget deal with parties that want to break up Spain. Protesters in Catalonia greeted the start of the trial today by blocking the AP-7 highway and main roads in Barcelona city center.
“It is a crucial moment,” Caroline Gray, a lecturer at Aston University in the U.K. who specializes in nationalist movements, said by phone. “If Sanchez can’t get his budget passed there will probably be early elections so potentially it’s a turning point.”
Sanchez took to Twitter to attack criticize his political rivals on the right and secessionist politicians in Catalonia for failing to engage in talks on the region’s future. “They live better in a state of confrontation,” he said. “They’re scared of dialogue.”
Since taking office last June, Sanchez has made peace overtures to Catalan nationalists a cornerstone of his domestic policy, claiming the nation will emerge stronger from efforts to rebuild relations with the region following the battles of 2017.
But talks with the Catalans broke down over Sanchez’s refusal to discuss a referendum on self-determination for the region. The premier has said a failure to pass the budget may force him to call a snap election.
As the government takes its main piece of economic legislation to parliament, the separatist trial starting across town will turn the ongoing divisions over Catalonia into a legal spectacle with a global audience.
The hearing will last several months, offering Spaniards an opportunity to relive the events of October and November 2017, when former regional President Carles Puigdemont made his attempt to split Catalonia from Spain in defiance of the constitution.
The trial will give the pro-independence campaign another chance to present its case to international public opinion and portray Spain as an “oppressor” state. The government says the judicial process shows the rule of law is working in Spain and the Catalan prisoners can be guaranteed a fair trial.
The process also offers other political factions a moment in the limelight.
Vox, an emerging party on the political right, is acting as one of the accusing parties in the trial alongside the government attorney and the public prosecutor and is pushing for the stiffest sentences.
The process will give Vox the chance to burnish its anti-separatist credentials ahead of municipal, regional and European elections scheduled for May. Beyond those ballots, the party is also targeting its first ever seats in the national parliament and a possible role in forming the next government.
Even if he survives his buffeting over the budget, Sanchez has to call an election by next year at the latest.
“This is a very important week, with the budget vote and the trial," said Ignacio Jurado, a lecturer at the University of York. “While the trial still has a way to go, it is bad luck for Pedro Sanchez that it starts right before the budget vote."
(Updates with protests, Sanchez comments from sixth paragraph.)
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