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Catalan independence leaders seek to re-engage weary public

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Pro-independence speaker of regional parliament laments disunity and failure to speak to all of society

The pro-independence speaker of Catalonia’s parliament has admitted that internal disunity and a failure to engage with all of Catalan society has hampered the secessionist cause, but believes separatist MPs could for the first time clinch more than 50% of the vote in the looming regional election.

The wealthy region in north-east Spain is likely to hold a snap election early next year after its separatist president, Quim Torra, was barred from public office by the supreme court.

Judges in Madrid on Monday upheld the sentence of a lower Catalan court, which had found Torra guilty of disobedience for defying the central electoral board by displaying pro-independence symbols on public buildings during last year’s general election campaign. He was banned from office for 18 months and fined €30,000 (£27,000).

Roger Torrent, the speaker of the regional parliament and a member of the Catalan Republican Left party (ERC), said Catalan MPs could still nominate a successor to Torra but an election was the more likely outcome.

Torra and his predecessor, Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium to avoid arrest after staging an illegal independence referendum in October 2017, both opted for a strategy of explicit confrontation with the Spanish state. Torrent, however, said the ERC favoured a “realistic” and more inclusive approach.

“We know that if we’re going to win, we need to set out a strategy that will allow us to take steps down the path that we’ve laid out politically,” he said. “That’s got less to do with a certain kind of rhetoric and grandiloquence and gesticulation than with making decisions that allow us to open up new scenarios that are better than past ones.”

He said the rivalry and discord between the ERC and Puigdemont’s centre-right Together for Catalonia had been counterproductive. “It’s true that over the past few years it’s been more about competition than cooperation and we need to move past that.”

But Torrent also acknowledged that the independence movement had not done enough to explain its aims to all Catalans. Support for seceding from Spain reached a record high of 48.7% in October 2017 and has now dropped to 42%, with 50.5% of Catalans opposed to it.

“We know that there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to talking to the people of this country and explaining to them exactly what out political project is in concrete terms,” said Torrent.

“We need to get out into towns and cities, and on to the streets and plazas of this country to explain, in a much better way, why we want a republic. But at the same time, we need to govern well. It’s vital that pro-independence [parties] are useful to the people.”

Torrent told the Guardian that Torra’s removal from office was “a scandal from a democratic point of view” but the resultant poll would give the independence movement a real chance of breaking the 50% barrier for the first time.

In the last regional election, in December 2017, the separatist bloc took 47.6% of the vote and held on to its parliamentary majority. According to a recent poll for La Vanguardia, the ERC, Together for Catalonia and the far-left, anti-capitalist CUP could between them win 51% of the vote this time.

“These aren’t normal elections because they’re coming in the context of an extraordinary democratic situation because a president was barred from office,” said Torrent. “But for us, they represent an opportunity to take more than 50% of the vote. That’s a fundamental aim that the independence movement still hasn’t achieved so far.”

The speaker stressed that such a result would not – and could not – lead to another headlong rush towards independence. “It’s a hugely important step but is it enough to allow us to pursue the independence we’ve laid out? No, but it’s a necessary step towards independence that hasn’t been taken.”

He said the ERC was keen to keep negotiating with Spain’s socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, to find a political solution to the Catalan conflict.

While Sánchez has taken a more conciliatory approach to the issue than his conservative predecessor – and may have to rely on the ERC’s help to pass the national budget – he has flatly refused to consider any violation of Spain’s constitution, which is based on the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.

Torrent said there needed to be “proper political proposals” on the negotiating table, adding that the ERC would continue to insist on an amnesty for the Catalan politicians who were imprisoned or fled into exile after organising the 2017 referendum, and on the right to self-determination.

“That’s our proposal,” he said. “If the Spanish government has one, they should put it on the table too … We will never leave any negotiating table, but it can’t just be something cosmetic; it needs to be about content.”

Torrent expressed dismay over the length of time it was taking prosecutors to act after an investigation by the Guardian and El País revealed he was one of at least four pro-independence activists whose mobile phones had been targeted using Israeli spyware that its makers say is sold only to governments.

“They’ve done absolutely nothing,” he said. “That’s worrying. People may think I’m playing the pro-independence victim but all democrats should be worried about politicians having their phones spied on.”

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