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Catalonia challenge awaits Spain's next prime minister

Catalan separatist protesters call for a "Million mask march" protest marking November 5 Guy Fawkes Day, in Barcelona. Photo: REUTERS/Enrique Calvo/File Photo

By Joan Faus and Ingrid Melander

The fight over Catalan independence has been thrust to the forefront of Spanish politics ahead of elections on Sunday, with street clashes, torched cars and smashed windows fuelling a hardening stance against separatists amongst political parties.

One consequence is that it may be harder to form a government should the election fail to provide an outright winner, as is widely expected.

Protests broke out in Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia last month after nine separatist leaders were convicted and handed long prison sentences for their role in an illegal referendum and declaration of independence in 2017.

The scale of the violence, however, was unprecedented in what has been a generally peaceful movement and it brought the issue back to boiling point.

Huge rallies by supporters and opponents of independence highlighted the stark divisions within Catalonia, Spain's wealthiest region, itself.

It also stiffened the fervent opposition to Catalan separatism among national political parties - and many Spaniards.

Even acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who had previously been among those most open to dialogue, has hardened his stance in recent days, promising to toughen criminal laws against separatism after right-wingers said he was too soft on Catalonia.

"Co-existence is broken," Cayetana Alvarez de Toledo, the conservative Partido Popular lead candidate in Catalonia, told Reuters.

"We must recognise that Catalonia is broken in two, identify (Catalan) nationalism as the main culprit, and strengthen the state."

The far-right Vox, which had started fading after winning seats in parliament for the first time in an election in April, has jumped in opinion polls since the Barcelona riots. It is projected to win 40-49 seats, possibly doubling its score.

The party, a newcomer to the scene, has banged the drum against Catalan separatism relentlessly.

Vox "understands the values of all good Spanish people," Barcelona resident Juan Ignacio Izquierdo said at a party rally in Catalonia's biggest city. "Catalonia is Spain and the line is unbreakable."

POSSIBLE ALLIANCES

Mr Sanchez's Socialists lead in opinion polls for Sunday's election but are expected to fall well short of a majority, meaning they will need allies to stay in power.

His tougher stance on Catalonia will, however, make a left-wing government deal more complicated as potential ally Unidas Podemos has a different approach, saying dialogue with separatists is the only solution.

And any support from Catalan separatist parliamentarians would be hard to clinch.

While the PP has been on the rise, the centre right Ciudadanos is collapsing after internal fighting over its strategy and most polls predict that even anger over Catalan separatism will not hand the right-wing bloc a majority.

That cannot be ruled out, however, as the number of undecided voters is so high.

Another option would involve the PP backing Mr Sanchez - or rather agreeing not to vote against him. But despite Mr Sanchez's tougher stance, they still have very different views on Catalonia and that could be a big obstacle to a deal.

Miquel Iceta, the Socialists' top politician in Catalonia, told Reuters that dialogue with the separatists still had to be on the cards.

"The solution will likely not be independence but neither immobility," he said.

CATALAN DIVISONS

What makes things even more complicated is Catalonia's own divisions. A poll in July showed 44% backing for secession and 48.3% against it.

Even among separatists, the two main parties, the left-wing ERC and center-right Junts per Catalonia, are split on what strategy to take. Their joint regional government is fragile and a snap regional election could well take place soon.

A third, even more hardline, anti-capitalist separatist party CUP, is projected to win a few seats in the national parliament for the first time.

And adding further confusion, yet another repeat national election in the near future cannot be ruled out.

"Will we organize elections again and again, until the one we want wins? We will have to get along with each other," PP supporter and Barcelona resident Manuel Lopez Lopez said.

Meanwhile, several pro-independence protests have been called in Catalonia for Saturday and police reinforcements are being sent to the region to make sure the election is not disrupted.

Explainer

Will Spain finally have a government?

By Ingrid Melander and Belén Carreño

The main candidates in Spain's fourth national election in four years have already dismissed several possible scenarios for forming a government by agreement should the result be inconclusive.

But all parties are well aware that voters do not want a fifth election, and they might have to strike a deal in the end.

Here are possible scenarios:

MINORITY SOCIALIST GOVERNMENT

The most likely scenario. Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists lead in opinion polls though most see them winning slightly fewer seats than in the previous election in in April, down from 123 out of 350 to about 120.

The question is who their allies could be. In the past, their natural partners would have been the far-left Unidas Podemos. But there is bad blood between them after failed talks following the April election. And their chances of having enough seats to govern together are slim.

Other options could include a pact which regional parties would join, but considering the tensions over Catalonia's independence drive, that would also be tricky.

The option gaining traction would be an unusual one - the conservative Partido Popular (PP) abstaining in parliament to let Mr Sanchez be voted in as prime minister.

But their support would not come for free and would likely come at the last minute to avoid a repeat election. It would not guarantee the budget can be adopted or that the government would last.

And if the far-right Vox gets a strong result, PP could fear that backing the Socialists, even without entering government, could hit them hard in the next election.

The centre-right Ciudadanos, whom polls predict will collapse in this election, could also be tempted to support Mr Sanchez to get back in the game.

The Socialists have said that if they win the election without a majority, they would make proposals to other parties within 48 hours and would aim to strike broad pacts on issues such as Spain's unity and regional financing.

SOCIALIST-LED COALITION GOVERNMENT

Much less likely but not impossible. The Socialists have made clear they want to govern alone. But they could eventually decide to change their mind if that is the only way to stay in government.

RIGHT-WING GOVERNMENT

Less likely than a Socialist government but cannot be ruled out after they gained some steam after riots by separatists in Catalonia mobilised some right-wing voters.

About a third of voters are still undecided, opinion polls showed, meaning even unlikely scenarios still have a chance of happening.

REPEAT ELECTIONS

No matter what happens, this will always be a possibility. Rival parties will all try to put the blame for a possible repeat election on each other, but the threat of this happening will also be the main reason behind efforts to strike a deal.

ONE SINGLE PARTY GETS A MAJORITY

Next to impossible. Opinion polls, political leaders and analysts all agree this will not happen. The Socialists are ahead but with less than a third of the votes.