Thousands Protest in Madrid Against Government’s Catalonia Policy

MADRID — Thousands of people demonstrated in the capital of Spain on Sunday against Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s proposed talks to ease political tensions in Catalonia, in the largest protest Mr. Sanchez has faced as pressure mounted on his minority government.

In a protest organized by center-right and far-right opposition parties, demonstrators waved Spanish flags as they filled the Plaza de Colon in the city center of Madrid. Their slogan: “For a united Spain, elections now!”

“The time of Sanchez’s government has ended,” Pablo Casado, leader of the Popular Party, said at the protest.

The protest took place two days before the start of the trial of 12 Catalan independence leaders, who face up to 25 years in prison on charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds for their role in a failed secession bid from Spain that they are accused of spearheading in 2017.

It also came as the government faced a key vote on Wednesday on its 2019 budget proposal, which will likely fail without the support of Catalan parties. But those parties have said that their vote for the budget is conditional on the Catalan talks, including the issue of independence, something the government will not include.

Failure by Parliament to approve the budget bill could prompt a snap election before the next scheduled vote in 2020.

The Socialist government’s proposal last Tuesday to appoint a rapporteur in talks among political parties to address the Catalan independence crisis galvanized the opposition, which has deemed it a betrayal and a surrender to pressure from Catalan separatists. The opposition has called for early elections.

Mr. Sanchez, who replaced a conservative government last June, holds just a quarter of the seats in Parliament and relies on backing from anti-austerity party Podemos, Catalan nationalists and other small parties to pass laws.

Center-right wing parties Popular Party and Ciudadanos organized Sunday’s protest, and the newly emerged far-right party Vox also participated.

Mr. Sanchez said on Saturday that the planned gathering would show a “Spain in black and white that simply proposes to go backwards.”

Ana Puente, a 73-year-old retiree, said on Sunday that she was protesting for a “united Spain.”

Raquel García, 76, who was carrying a Spanish flag, said, “The government is giving many things to supporters of Catalan independence and is going to break Spain apart.”

The government is squeezed on both sides of the Catalan issue: Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said on Friday that talks were on track to fail because Catalan pro-independence groups had rejected the government’s proposed framework. The Catalan groups want a referendum on independence included on the agenda, which Madrid will not accept.

Recent opinion polls have shown the Popular Party, Ciudadanos and Vox could win a majority of seats in Parliament if elections were held, allowing them to replace the Socialist government.

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