The Man to Put Sanchez Back in Power Is Sitting in Catalan Jail

Rodrigo Orihuela

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Pedro Sanchez faces an unusual obstacle in his efforts to negotiate a governing majority in Spain: The guy whose support he needs most is in prison.

Catalan separatist leader Oriol Junqueras is serving 13 years in jail for his role in an illegal independence referendum, but he still has the ultimate word on how his party’s lawmakers will vote when Sanchez tries to win the confidence of the Spanish Parliament. Given that Junqueras is limited to just a few minutes of phone calls each day, it’s going to be some time before he can to thrash out the terms of any deal, according to a senior party official, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll get there.

Despite Sanchez’s efforts to get past the Catalan question, it’s become the central issue in his efforts to secure a second term in office. Spain has seen one prime minister toppled since the Catalan Parliament’s abortive declaration of independence of October 2017 and no one in Madrid has managed to forge a solid majority since. Parties are divided over whether to crack down on separatists or seek a settlement with them.

Sanchez, a 47-year-old Socialist, was backed by pro-independence parties when he ousted the conservative People’s Party with a no-confidence vote in 2018. But since then the relationship has become more twisted as Sanchez sought to keep a lid on the separatist movement. After Spain’s Supreme Court last month jailed nine separatist leaders, including Junqueras, the region has been hit by a series of protests that have at times tipped into violence.

Junqueras has been in jail since November 2017 when the Supreme Court began investigating the referendum campaign but he’s maintained his control of his party, Esquerra Republicana, and even seen his moral authority increase.

The 50-year-old professor of Catalan history was vice president in the regional administration that organized the illegal vote two years ago after coming to prominence in his party as the push for independence gained momentum. In the lobby of his party offices in downtown Barcelona, he had a map of the “Catalan Lands” that included not just the region itself but neighboring Valencia, the Balearic Islands and parts of southern France.

Above his desk he had a modernist-style portrait of Lluis Companys, a former Esquerra leader and Catalan president who declared a Catalan state in 1934 and was later executed under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

From his jail cell northwest of Barcelona, Junqueras has relied mainly on hand-written letters to communicate with senior officials in his party. To prevent the Spanish authorities accessing his correspondence, he has them carried out of Lledoners Prison near Manresa by a trusted associate who is allowed limited visits. More urgent issues can be addressed through the short telephone calls he’s allowed each day with his wife.

Whether or not to support Sanchez is now the major dilemma for Junqueras and Esquerra.

Sanchez had toughened his line on Catalonia in the run-up to Sunday’s general election, angering many separatists as he tried to shore up support in the rest of Spain. But on Tuesday he signed an outline coalition agreement with the anti-establishment party Podemos, which is in favor of allowing the region a referendum on independence.

The Socialists and Podemos have 155 lawmakers between them. They can probably tack on another 13 votes from smaller regional parties. But to win a confidence vote in the 350-strong Parliament, Sanchez almost certainly needs help from the 13 lawmakers in Junqueras’s party.

Traditional Partners

Esquerra, which means “Left” in Catalan, has traditionally been close to the Socialists on social and economic policy and ran Catalonia in coalition until 2010. Indeed, the party repeatedly voiced its support for Sanchez during the first part of the year and Gabriel Rufian, leader of its delegation in the national parliament, scolded the prime minister and Podemos in July for their failure to reach an agreement that would have prevented this month’s election.

Allowing him to fail now would open the door to yet another election with right-wing parties gaining momentum with their calls for a further crackdown on the separatists.

But since Junqueras’s conviction last month, the grassroots separatist movement has been radicalized all over again and so Esquerra risks a backlash if it reaches an agreement with Sanchez. The acting prime minister added fuel to the fire during the election campaign with threats to suspend Catalonia’s regional government again to restore order.

During the election campaign, Rufian himself, an outspoken secessionist, was heckled by activists on the streets of Barcelona, who called him a traitor for being to close to the Socialists.

Pere Aragones, an Esquerra official and deputy president of Catalonia, said Wednesday that the party won’t support Sanchez unless he agrees to discuss a referendum on independence.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rodrigo Orihuela in Madrid at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at, Charles Penty

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