MADRID - Spain is caught in the political crosswinds as a Supreme Court trial of 12 Catalan independence leaders gets underway this week against the backdrop of a congressional defeat for socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who may be forced to call snap elections.
Government spokesmen said Wednesday that a date for elections would soon be announced, following the defeat of the budget proposed by Sanchez, who lost the support of regional parties whose handful of parliamentary votes were crucial for his minority government.
Conservatives have been demanding Sanchez hold elections since he assumed office last year through a parliamentary censure motion against conservative Popular Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Sanchez had the backing of Catalan nationalists seeking to punish Rajoy for dismantling their independence bid.
The Catalans are now abandoning Sanchez as he submits his socialist budget with significant tax increases for parliamentary approval. While he showers Catalonia with promised public spending, separatists balk at his slow progress in meeting their demands for self-determination and the trial against their leaders, which spokeswoman Elsa Artadi calls “shameful.”
“Sanchez has been unable to withstand the torrents of pressure from the right,” said a parliamentary representative for the separatist Catalan Republican Left party during Tuesday’s congressional debate, in which he urged a vote against the government.
Conservative opponents gathered 200,000 people in the center of Madrid last Sunday to denounce attempts by Sanchez to establish formal negotiations with Catalan leaders through an international mediator.
PP leader Pablo Casado and Albert Rivera of the Ciudadanos party called Sanchez a “traitor” and demanded his resignation before the flag-waving multitude, including invited celebrities such as prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa.
Suggestions for an international mediation of the conflict were included in a 21-point proposal that Catalan President Quim Torra handed Sanchez at a meeting in Barcelona last month, according to government officials.
WATCH: Catalonia Trial Reopens Spain's Painful Debate
Some senior socialist figures such as former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales joined conservatives in their storm of criticism about treating Catalonia like a de facto foreign state. Sanchez caved and announced last Friday that “dialogue” with the Catalan government was suspended.
PP spokesmen have also warned the government not to interfere in the trials by negotiating pardons or reduced sentencing, as proposed by some officials close to Sanchez, such as leaders of the Catalan branch of the Spanish socialist party.
Government attorneys are trying to drop the charge of rebellion filed against former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras and other officials who organized an October 2017 independence referendum, which the Spanish government had declared illegal.
The attorneys have argued that the disobedience of central authorities actions did not constitute rebellion because no violence was used. But the motion has been opposed by leaders of the far right VOX party who are gaining much media exposure as public accusers in the trial where they are pushing for a 74-year prison sentence for Junqueras.
VOX has a strong grass-roots base among patriotic Spaniards viscerally opposed to regional nationalism.
“We are playing politics with the trial the same way that the Catalans are,” said VOX lawyer Pedro Fernandez.
During his testimony Thursday, Junqueras testified that he considers himself to a "political prisoner."
Trial to last months
The courtroom drama is expected to last at least three months, during which about 500 witnesses will be called, including former Prime Minister Rajoy and King Felipe.
The newspaper El Pais observes that the Catalans are basing their defense on a “political offensive” to undermine the trial’s legitimacy. Torra called a press conference after the first day’s session in which he said that the proceedings were an “attack against democracy and human rights” and “should never be taking place.”
He has threatened to take the case before European courts, which have blocked Spanish efforts to arrest Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who led the 2017 independence bid and fled to exile in Belgium.
The budding Catalan government has been trying to cultivate support abroad through a network of embassies, which Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Borrel accuses of promoting a “black legend about Spain.”
German authorities have joined Belgium in rejecting rebellion charges against Puigdemont. But analysts say it’s doubtful that EU institutions would lend any significant support to Catalan separatists at a time when cementing the bloc’s unity takes priority in order to confront Brexit.
VOX leader Santiago Abascal has told VOA that he has also lobbied populist movements elsewhere in Europe to shun Catalan separatists after they received some initial backing from parties forming part of Italy’s governing coalition.