MADRID — More than a year since Catalonia’s abortive independence bid, the conflict remains the dominant conflict in Spain’s politics and could determine the fate of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, whose attempts to negotiate with separatists may backfire as leaders of the independence movement began a lengthy and controversial trial Tuesday.
And as the trial opens, Mr. Sanchez finds himself in the uncomfortable situation of depending on support from the region to keep his job.
Government spokesmen have raised prospects of snap elections in April if Mr. Sanchez’s proposed budget is rejected by lawmakers this week. Catalan secessionist parties who have given Mr. Sanchez key parliamentary support in the past are threatened to withhold it this time because he has failed to deliver on their main demand for another independence referendum.
Opening the parliamentary debate on Tuesday, Spanish Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero told Catalan lawmakers that the government would “not give in to any blackmail by anybody.”
“Under no circumstance will we agree to include the right to self-determination in Catalonia in any talking points,” she said, The Associated Press reported.
But Mr. Sanchez is also under much pressure from conservative opponents who have denounced him for trying to “negotiate away” Spain’s unity. They organized a rally of 200,000 people in Madrid on Sunday calling on Mr. Sanchez to resign and hold elections immediately.
A leader of the pro-separatist ERC party, Gabriel Ruffian, has said that Mr. Sanchez is “threatening” to call elections in an effort to “blackmail” the independence movement. A Barcelona city councilor for the secessionist PEDECAT movement said in an interview that elections are is not “desirable” at present because resurgent right-wing parties are expected to score major gains.
Twelve Catalan leaders, including former regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras, went on trial Tuesday for their role in the ill-fated October 2017 declaration of independence. Mr. Junqueras and his fellow defendants face sentences of over 50 years for rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.
Spain’s Supreme Court is also trying the president of Catalonia’s parliament, Carme Forcadell, and Catalan security chief Joaquim Forn, who is accused of ordering regional police to safeguard polling stations for a 2017 independence referendum which the government declared illegal.
“This trial comes at the weakest moment for the backbone of our political institutions,” said one senior political commentator on Spanish state television, noting predictions the crisis could mark the greatest strain on Spain’s democratic institutions since the end of the Franco era more than four decades ago.
Divisions are evident even before the trial begins. Moves by government lawyers to drop the most serious charge of rebellion against Mr. Junqueras have been opposed by the far-right VOX party, which recently won its first seats in a regional parliament amid growing public skepticism over the government’s immigration policies.
“We will make politics out of the trial outside the courtroom,” said VOX lawyer Pedro Fernandez, “the same as Catalan separatists are doing.”
VOX wants a prison sentence of over 70 years for Mr. Junqueras and other separatists, whom the party accuses of leading a “coup” against the Spanish state. Government lawyers say that the charge of rebellion should be dropped because there was no call for violence.
Officials of the conservative Ciudadanos party say that Mr. Sanchez tried to negotiate sentence reductions and possible pardons with Mr. Junqueras through a leader of the far-left Podemos party, who visited the separatist leader in jail.
Mauricio Macri of the pro-independence Omnium Cultural organization denounced as “unjust” the trial that kicked off Tuesday and is expected to last several months, and separatist groups are organizing a general strike in Catalonia.
The Catalan parties, ERC, PEDECAT and CUP, helped usher Mr. Sanchez into office in June 2017 by backing a censure motion that his Socialist Party introduced to oust conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who imposed direct rule on Catalonia.
Mr. Sanchez insists that he has not made any major concessions to the separatists and that he will not negotiate anything that would violate the constitution.
But his repeated meetings with Catalan President Quim Torra have raised suspicions that he is “sneaking a deal behind Spain’s back,” according to conservative Popular Party leader Pablo Casado.
Alarms sounded last week when the government announced the appointment of a “mediator” to establish a “negotiating table” with the Catalans. Even Socialist Party elder statesmen such as former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales joined the storm of criticism against Mr. Sanchez for treating Catalonia as a de facto separate state.
Perceptions that Mr. Sanchez has a hidden agenda are commonplace.
“This guy thinks that he can do anything he wants and was never even elected,” said a Madrid taxi driver honking in support of Sunday’s opposition rally.
Socialists have fared poorly at the polls recently. They lost regional elections in Andalucia, a longtime party stronghold, last December, with VOX joining the new conservative ruling coalition.
Mr. Sanchez pledged to hold early elections when he assumed office last year but has justified alliances with separatists and the far-left Podemos party as necessary to hold off the “extreme right.” He is publishing a book about his struggle to stay in office titled “Resistance Manual.”