MADRID/BARCELONA (Reuters) - The jailed leader of Catalonia’s main pro-independence party has backed away from demands for unilateral secession from Spain, days before a regional election that polls suggest will produce a hung parliament.
The independence drive has tipped Spain into its worst political crisis since the return of democracy in the 1970s, dividing opinion in the region, denting an economic rebound and prompting a business exodus to other parts of the country.
In reply to written questions from Reuters passed to him in prison where he is being held on allegations of rebellion and sedition, Oriol Junqueras struck a conciliatory tone.
He wrote that he would continue to pursue independence if he became Catalonia’s next president, but also “build bridges and shake hands” with representatives of the Spanish state.
“I can assure you that we are democrats before we are separatists and that the aim (of gaining independence) does not always justify the means,” he said in comments that appeared to drop his party’s earlier demand for unilateral secession.
Junqueras’ Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left) party is tipped to become the largest separatist force in parliament in Thursday’s ballot, but surveys suggest neither the pro-independence nor the pro-unity camp will win a majority.
He was deputy leader of the Catalan government that was sacked in October after the regional assembly unilaterally declared independence following a referendum that central authorities had deemed illegal. Madrid also dissolved the assembly and called fresh elections.
The Spanish justice system’s actions against the region’s leaders has since then hamstrung the pro-independence camp and further muddied the electoral waters before Thursday’s vote.
Catalonia’s ex-president Carles Puigdemont is campaigning from self-imposed exile in Brussels and Junqueras doing so from jail along with several other politicians. It is unclear if many of those likely to be elected will be able to attend parliament.
At separatist rallies across the capital Barcelona in recent days, many supporters appeared to recognize that forcing independence without Spain’s consent was no longer an option.
Instead, many favored pressuring Madrid into talks and gaining European Union approval for a negotiated split.
“We can’t continue unilaterally. We might lose more than we would gain,” said Carles Ortega, a 58-year-old consultant, at a rally at a sports center in Barcelona’s outskirts that Puigdemont addressed via videolink.
Final polls for the election expected to attract a record turnout showed Esquerra running neck-and-neck with pro-unity party Ciudadanos (Citizens), with both far short of the 68 seats needed to hold a majority.
Esquerra previously formed a coalition government with Puigdemont’s own center-right party, which leads the Junts per Catalunya platform (Together for Catalonia) which is seen coming third in the vote.
The key for unionist and separatist factions will be winning over the regional offshoot of anti-austerity party Podemos, which supports unity but wants a referendum. Its leader favors a left-wing alliance across parties that both back and reject independence.
“There is a rising risk that pro-independence parties fall a bit short and need to include Podemos and we get a softer push for independence within the institutions,” Peter Ceretti, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said.
The movement would rumble on, he said, and press Madrid on long-held demands for it to return more of Catalonia’s tax revenue and recognize the region as a nation, rather than a nationality, in the Spanish constitution.
Many Catalans worry about how the independence drive has obscured all other social issues and could harm the wealthy region’s position as Spain’s primary driver of economic growth and a magnet for foreign investment.
Junqueras said if he was elected regional president he would pay heed to voters who opposed independence.
“I would tell them everybody has to be respected and that differences always have to be resolved in a democratic way,” he said.
Editing by Julien Toyer and John Stonestreet