It’s been two years since Catalonia’s then-government tried to stage a breakaway from Spain and riot police clamped down on an illegal independence referendum. In October 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court handed down stiff jail sentences to some of the leaders of that effort. The result was a wave of outrage that pulsed through Catalan cities during a week of intense rioting. As Spain prepares for elections on Nov. 10, the Catalan question has again been at the heart of the campaign. In the country’s fractured politics, Catalonia sharpens animosities and complicates the political compromises needed to form a government.

1. What verdict was handed down?

The trial of 12 key figures in the Catalan independence movement -- including former regional vice-president Oriol Junqueras -- ended in June of 2019. On Oct. 14, the high court sentenced Junqueras to 13 years in jail for sedition and misuse of public funds and imposed terms of between nine and 12 years for eight other leaders, including Carme Forcadell, the former speaker of the Catalan parliament. The judges found, however, that the events of late 2017 didn’t meet the legal test for rebellion.

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2. What was the reaction in Catalonia?

Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez urged Catalan nationalists not to turn violent, but the verdicts sparked immediate protests across Catalonia and also a large counter-demonstration in Barcelona by supporters of a unified Spain. Deputies for the separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya party said the sentences meant the death of democracy in Spain and called for protests in Barcelona and elsewhere. The Catalan government said the verdicts were a historic error and called on the international community to help resolve the “conflict” with Spain. Even FC Barcelona, the city’s soccer club, called for dialogue so that the leaders can be released.

3. What’s been the impact on national politics?

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Nobody can judge whether the riots helped or hurt Sanchez politically, but the developments in Catalonia may have entrenched the divisions that have made it impossible for him to form a government. Vox, a Spanish nationalist party calling for a stern clampdown on Catalan separatism, has surged in the polls and looks likely to build on the 24-seat platform it won in elections in April. The conservative People’s Party, the biggest opposition group in parliament, also looks set to improve substantially on its poor performance in the last ballot. The big loser looks like Ciudadanos, a party formerly in the political middle ground that has shed supporters after taking an uncompromising stance against dialogue with the separatists and Sanchez.

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4. How will it affect forming a new government?

Sanchez relied on the votes of separatists to overthrow his PP predecessor Mariano Rajoy in a confidence vote in 2018. The math of Spain’s political deadlock means he may need them again to form a government. But the Catalan issue complicates Sanchez’s relations with Podemos, an anti-austerity party that in theory should be a natural partner for his Socialists. Sanchez has said he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night with Podemos in key government posts because it backs a referendum on Catalan independence.

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5. How do Catalan local politics affect this situation?

The jail terms handed down for Junqueras, the leader of Esquerra, and others will certainly mobilize separatist voters. But it’s a more complex picture than it seems. Esquerra takes a more gradual approach to separatism than the other main pro-independence party, Junts per Catalunya, which wants an immediate split from Spain. CUP, a radical party that has also previously backed independence, is also fielding candidates in national elections for the first time, further complicating the picture.

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6. How is the independence movement faring?

It’s been plagued by infighting for the past two years. The regional government is run by a die-hard separatist, President Joaquim Torra of Junts per Catalunya. He took charge in 2018 after the former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont fled Spain and pro-independence parties won a slim majority in a regional election at the end of 2017. Notwithstanding the jail sentences, there seems little appetite within the broader movement to pursue independence immediately. In a sign of some willingness to ease tensions, Spain’s King Felipe VI braved protests to attend a prize-giving ceremony in Barcelona at which his 14-year-old daughter, Princess Leonor, made a speech in perfect Catalan.

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7. What’s the way out of this mess?

The Catalan dispute has plagued Spain off and on for more than three centuries, so it’s naive to bet on easy solutions. The separatists want an independent state that, if it came into being, would have an economy as large as Finland’s or Portugal’s. Spain is determined to hold onto a region it sees as integral to national unity and that contributes a fifth of its output. Sanchez has said he wants to explore ways to expand Catalonia’s powers without allowing an official referendum on secession. He sees dialogue as the way forward, while refusing to countenance any breakup of Spanish territory. For now, the forces of Catalan independence retain a slim majority in the regional parliament. However, the Catalan government’s own polls show there is no majority in favor of a split, and support for independence has been trending downward in 2019. The general election results could give fresh insight into how separatism is faring.

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8. What happened to Puigdemont?

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While Junqueras and other Catalan leaders stayed in Spain to face trial, Puigdemont fled to Brussels. He was arrested in Germany in March 2018 when a Spanish judge reactivated a warrant to detain him but was soon released. For now, he’s living in what his supporters call “the House of the Republic” in the Brussels suburb of Waterloo. He won election to the European Parliament in May 2019, but couldn’t take up his seat without picking up his credentials in Spain (where he would have faced arrest). In October, a Madrid judge renewed an order to detain him in Belgium, so his ability to avoid Spanish jail time will be put to a new test.

To contact the reporter on this story: Charles Penty in Madrid at cpenty@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Andy Reinhardt, Todd White

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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