Spain PM to decide on election Friday after budget rejected

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez took power after he ousted his conservative rival in a dramatic parliamentary no-confidence vote (AFP Photo/PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU)

Madrid (AFP) - Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will announce on Friday whether to call an early general election after right-wing and Catalan separatist lawmakers rejected his draft 2019 budget.

The socialist premier, who came to power in June thanks in part to parliamentary support from 17 Catalan lawmakers, was depending on their votes to push through his first budget.

But on Wednesday they withdrew their backing in protest at the leaders of a secessionist movement being put on trial for rebellion this week and not being able to hold a legal independence referendum.

Sanchez left parliament without speaking after the budget vote but a government official said his decision on whether to call early elections would be announced after a weekly cabinet meeting on Friday.

The next national election is due mid-2020. Spanish media suggested May 26 when municipal, regional and European Parliament elections are held in Spain, or April 28 as the most likely dates for the polls.

If Sanchez does call snap polls it will be Spain's third general elections in little over three years.

He took office in June after the previous conservative Popular Party (PP) government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy -- tainted by a corruption scandal -- was ousted in a no-confidence vote.

But his Socialist Party holds only 84 seats in the 350-seat parliament -- the smallest number of any Spanish government since the return to democracy following dictator Francisco Franco's death in 1975 -- and his government has struggled to pass legislation.

- 'End of the road' -

Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), said the budget rejection marked "the end of the road for Pedro Sanchez as prime minister."

"It's now really pressing to call general elections."

Conservatives are furious with the socialist government for negotiating with Catalonia's separatist executive as Madrid tries to ease tensions with the northeastern region after a secession attempt in October 2017.

While Madrid says it initiated talks to try and find a way out of an ongoing crisis as Catalonia's government continues to want independence, the opposition has accused it of yielding to separatist demands merely to stay in power.

Various opinion polls -- the latest published on Wednesday in online daily -- point to a right-wing majority in parliament post-elections formed by the PP, centre-right Ciudadanos and far-right Vox party, which has surged in the polls recently thanks to its hard line against Catalan separatism

Tens of thousands of people waving red and yellow Spanish flags joined a rally on Sunday in Madrid called by the three parties against Sanchez, who they accuse of treachery over his negotiations with Catalan separatists.

- 'Brake on social progress' -

Analysts predicted that in the current climate, with Sanchez left with so little parliamentary support, he will call early general elections.

In addition to dealing with Catalonia, Sanchez's government approved a 22 percent increase in the minimum wage -- the biggest since 1977 -- which came into effect this year and has taken steps to remove Franco's remains from an imposing basilica near Madrid to a more discreet place.

"Legally he is not obliged to do so," said Antonio Barroso, deputy research director at the Teneo analysis group.

"But politically, the question is whether the government would be justified (in not calling polls)."

Sanchez's socialists have already adopted a campaign-like tone, accusing conservatives and Catalonia separatists of blocking a budget that included many social spending measures.

"The right-wing in this country is trying to put a brake on the social progress of this budget and this government," Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero said after the rejection.

"It's trying to stop this country from moving forward," she added.