Demonstrators set a barricade on fire in a clash with police on October 16 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/on fire
Demonstrators set a barricade on fire in a clash with police on October 16 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/on fire

Madrid — Catalan separatist leaders are doubling down on their campaign of protests at jail terms handed down to the authors of a failed independence bid, raising the stakes for acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez ahead of November’s election.

They want to use the demonstrations to apply as much pressure as possible to force Madrid to give ground, said one person involved in setting strategy for Junts per Catalunya, the party of Catalonia’s separatist president Joaquim Torra.

Unrest has pulsed through Catalan cities since Monday when Spanish supreme court judges handed down combined sentences totalling 100 years to nine leaders of the 2017 secession attempt, including the former regional vice-president Oriol Junqueras. The wider backdrop to the clashes are Spanish general elections on November 10.

Sanchez’s refusal to take opportunities to form a government over the summer has left him exposed to a potential curve-ball from the separatist jail sentences. With the conservative People’s Party and the Spanish nationalists of Vox already rising in the polls before the sentences were delivered, he will have to carefully calibrate his response to separatist provocations.

On Wednesday night, Sanchez called on Torra to unequivocally condemn the violence. He said his own government would demonstrate its strength through its measured response to the protests.

“The only hope of the violent groups is that we make mistakes,” Sanchez said in a news conference. “Their only hope is to see us lose our cool and divided.”

“We have always condemned and we condemn violence,” Torra said in a speech on Catalan state-TV after Sanchez spoke. “This must stop immediately. There is no reason nor justification to burn cars or for any other act of vandalism.”

The comments came as protesters took to the streets and clashed with police for the third consecutive day. Catalonia’s regional police force said they were attacked with molotov cocktails, and broadcasters showed images of youths hurling rocks and cars burning.

Police made 33 arrests on Wednesday night and the violence has left 191 police officers injured since Monday, the government said. Thursday’s protests began with blockades of burning tyres on Catalonia’s AP-7 highway.

The Spanish government has been clear all along that it won’t bend to the separatists’ main demand — that it allows a referendum on independence. “Conflicts have to be solved by dialogue in the framework of the constitution,” acting foreign minister Josep Borrell said on Tuesday.

For Torra and other independence leaders, openly supporting the demonstrations is a balancing act.

They have been careful not to turn their backs on fiery grass-roots supporters because they see non-violent street protests as a cornerstone of their strategy of pressuring Madrid. Images of violence raises the risk that they might lose support from international sympathisers and potentially prompt a backlash from Sanchez.

“Total support to the demonstrations and massive and calm marches,” Junqueras tweeted from jail on Wednesday. “Violence doesn’t represent us.”

On Tuesday evening, following the clashes between activists and police, Catalan regional vice-president Pere Aragones tweeted a request for activists to refrain from violence. “Don’t gift them what they want,” he said, referring to the risk that Sanchez may opt to impose direct rule on Catalonia.

Junqueras’s party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and Torra’s Junts per Catalunya both share the common separatist goal and want the release of the imprisoned leaders. Even so, they have growing differences on strategy — ERC is more open to negotiation with Madrid beyond its central demand for a referendum on independence.

“Given the lack of dialogue, with political prisoners and people in exile, we have said ‘What could be a possible solution to all of this?’” Torra said in an interview. “A referendum agreed by you — that is what we’ll try.”

Sanchez’s Socialists emerged as the biggest party in the last elections held in April but fell short of a majority to form a government. Negotiations to form a coalition with Podemos, an anti-austerity party that takes a softer tone on Catalan nationalism, fell apart over the summer, with Sanchez saying the alliance wasn’t viable ahead of the separatist trial decision.