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Catalan separatists approve talks with Socialists, demand negotiation

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Members of Catalan separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) on Monday overwhelmingly backed the conditions set out by party leaders to support a Socialist-led government in Spain, demanding a negotiation over the issue of secession.

FILE PHOTO: Spain's acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and European Counsel president-elect Charles Michel (not pictured) hold a joint news conference at the Moncloa Palace, in Madrid, Spain, November 14, 2019. REUTERS/Susana Vera

The result of the non-binding consultation could ease the way for left-leaning ERC to act as a potential kingmaker after the Nov. 10 election yielded a deeply fragmented political landscape. A total of 94.6% of members voted yes. The turnout was around 70% with close to 6,000 votes.

Spain’s Socialists, led by acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, have been left scrambling for support following an election win in which they fell short of a majority.

ERC official Marta Vilalta said the results showed that, unless the Socialists accept its demands, the party will uphold its refusal to facilitate Sanchez’s bid to form a government.

“If (the Socialists) want something from us they have to make a move, if they don’t we will obviously maintain our no (vote),” Vilalta told reporters.

The party’s goal is to meet with the Socialists this week, an ERC source said.

In a convoluted question, ERC had asked its members whether they “agree to reject Pedro Sanchez’s investiture unless there is previously an agreement to tackle the political conflict with the (Spanish) state through a negotiation table.”

Spain’s fractured politics have given Catalan parties a chance to regain the leverage of past decades that they at times had in the Spanish parliament, while potentially also offering a path to addressing the push for secession in the country’s most economically important region.

The Socialists, who oppose both independence and the push to hold a referendum on secession, announced on Nov. 12 a coalition deal with far-left Unidas Podemos, which favours a referendum and dialogue with Catalonia. Together the two parties have 155 seats, still short of a majority in the 350-seat parliament.

ERC, which won 13 seats, has tied its support for a Socialist-led government to four conditions: talks should be between the Spanish and Catalan governments, take place without any preconditions, follow a clear timeline and include guarantees that any commitments made will be carried out.

But two sources close to the negotiations to form a government told Reuters that the potential for failure looms large, given the rigid demands being put forward by ERC. Both did not rule out that the political stalemate could continue.

ERC abstained in a vote in parliament in July when Sanchez failed to get enough support for a new term, which eventually prompted this month’s election.

But ERC argues that much has changed since then, including the October sentencing of party chairman Oriol Junqueras to 13 years in prison for sedition after Catalonia’s failed 2017 independence bid. Protests erupted across the northeastern region, at times violent.

Reporting by Joan Faus, additional reporting by Belen Carreno, James Mackenzie; editing by Ashifa Kassam and Grant McCool