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Opposition calls for street protests to “throw out” Prime Minister Sánchez

The calls from the Popular Party and Ciudadanos came after it emerged that a “rapporteur” will be present at talks between Madrid and Catalan political parties

PP leader Pablo Casado.
PP leader Pablo Casado. EFE

Spain’s conservative Popular Party (PP) and center-right group Ciudadanos (Citizens) have today called for members of the public to attend a demonstration this coming weekend aimed at “throwing out” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez from office.

“We need to create a civic front against Sánchez,” said Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera on Wednesday, encouraging Spaniards to turn out in Madrid’s Plaza de Colón on Sunday at midday to protest against the Socialist Party (PSOE) leader.

The spark that ignited the joint calls from Rivera and PP leader Pablo Casado was the central government’s decision to include a “rapporteur” in planned cross-party talks aimed at improving the situation in Catalonia, a region that has been immersed in a drive for independence for years, pushing relations with Madrid to the limit.

Speaking on the Cadena SER radio network on Wednesday morning, the deputy prime minister, Carmen Calvo, defended the use of a rapporteur, the presence of which at the meetings has sparked fierce criticism not just from the opposition, but also from some areas within the PSOE itself.

The Catalan government has  been calling for an “international mediator” between the central government and the regional government

“It is not a mediator,” she said. “There is no international conflict. There is a table at which the political parties will sit in Catalonia and that will use a person to help organize and negotiate. It has no greater importance. No more.”

The Catalan government has for months been calling for an “international mediator” between the central government and the regional government before negotiations can begin. This is something the PSOE administration has always ruled out, given that it would suggest that the two governments are on the same level.

Instead, Madrid has offered the Catalan government the compromise option of the rapporteur. Calvo described the role on Wednesday as “someone who can take notes, who can call us to the meetings, who can coordinate.” Adding later: “[Someone] to help out… As a rapporteur does at a congress.”

But for Casado, the acceptance of a mediator at the talks is “the most serious thing to happen in Spain since 23-F,” in reference to an attempted coup in Spain led by the Civil Guard on February 23, 1981.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in a recent file photo.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in a recent file photo. EL PAÍS

For his part, Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos slammed the “humiliation” that, in his opinion, is represented by the need for a rapporteur to facilitate dialogue in Catalonia. After hearing the words of Calvo this morning, the party decided to take a further step and call for protests in the streets. “We have seen Calvo’s statements, and if we had any doubts before, they have confirmed to us that this is a fraud,” he said. “There is a deal between Sánchez and the separatists.”

The leader of far-right party Vox Santiago Abascal has also called on all of his party’s supporters to come out in protest against Sánchez in Madrid on Sunday.

Pedro Sánchez came to power last June after winning a vote of no confidence in Congress against former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, after the PP became embroiled in the latest in a long line of corruption scandals. However, his Socialist Party counts on just 84 seats in Spain’s lower house, with 176 votes needed for a majority in the 350-seat chamber.

Given the way in which he took office, the prime minister is often accused by opposition leaders such as Casado of being an “okupa” (squatter) in La Moncloa, the seat of the Spanish government.

Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos slammed the “humiliation” that, in his opinion, is represented by the need for a rapporteur

His weak position in Congress also means that Sánchez needs the support of a range of parties – including those in favor of an independent Catalonia – to pass legislation.

This week saw the pro-Catalan independence groups Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) announce their intentions to veto the 2019 budget plan, which is due to be voted on next week.

In a bid to improve the situation between the central government in Madrid and Catalonia – whose regional government held an illegal referendum on secession in 2017, followed by a unilateral declaration of independence passed through parliament – Sánchez has made a number of concessions to the region. These include greater spending in the draft 2019 budget, and the aforementioned cross-party talks on the issues at hand. It is these talks – and the inclusion of the figure of the “rapporteur” – that have prompted today’s response from the opposition.

Before the calls for the demonstration were announced, the PP had gone so far as to suggest a vote of no confidence against Sánchez himself. PP chief Pablo Casado told Spanish news agency EFE that he was not ruling out the possibility of using this option were Sánchez not to correct his “high treason of Spain,” in reference to the inclusion of the rapporteur.

Ciudadanos chief Albert Rivera speaking in Congress on Wednesday.
Ciudadanos chief Albert Rivera speaking in Congress on Wednesday. EFE

In principle, Casado would not have the votes to win such a motion in Congress. Ciudadanos would not back such a move, preferring instead to pile pressure on Sánchez to call elections as soon as possible.

The PP and Ciudadanos are planning to unite their deputies in Congress to demand an urgent statement from the prime minister in the lower house to explain the role of the rapporteur.

Casado aimed a barrage of criticism today at Sánchez, describing him as an “illegitimate prime minister for doing deals with coup-plotters and letting himself be blackmailed by those who want to break up Spain.” He also described the PSOE politician as “mediocre,” “unworthy,” “the greatest traitor,” “a felon,” “an egomaniac” and a “compulsive liar.”

Casado aimed a barrage of criticism at Sánchez, describing him as an “illegitimate prime minister for doing deals with coup-plotters

The secretary general of the PP, Teodoro García Egea, said in an interview with Cadena SER that the inclusion of such a person at the cross-party talks constituted the “surrender of the Spanish government.” He continued: “I don’t understand why a negotiator is needed so that the central state can talk to the rest of the autonomous regions. Are they going to use a rapporteur when they talk to Extremadura? When there is a problem with the rest of the regions? Will there be 17 rapporteurs?”

Ciudadanos has also expressed its objection to the very existence of cross-party talks outside of the usual institutions. “We cannot sell out our national sovereignty, nor create parallel frameworks to the Constitution,” said Rivera in Congress. “The only framework is the Constitution, the only place where all Spaniards speak is in the Congress of Deputies or the Senate. Under no circumstances can there be parallel talks.”

Rivera went on to claim that Sánchez has accepted all of the “mental frameworks” of the pro-independence parties and “all of their arguments” in order to hold talks parallel to Spain’s institutions. The Ciudadanos chief argued instead that such talks should take place during a debate in parliament. The party argues that there is no conflict between Catalonia and Spain, but rather “a conflict within Catalonia because the coup-plotters have broken the law.”

Rivera was referring to the politicians and civic leaders who are about to go on trial in the Supreme Court for their role in the independence drive. They are facing charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of funds, among other offenses, and could end up with jail terms. A group of Catalan pro-independence leaders, including former deputy regional premier Oriol Junqueras, have been in pre-trial custody since late 2017, after a judge deemed them to be a flight risk, among other factors taken into consideration. The former premier of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, fled Spain along with a number of his colleagues in the wake of the unilateral declaration of independence, and is still wanted for arrest in his home country.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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