BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The Catalan separatist crisis that has plagued Spain ever since a failed breakaway bid by the wealthy region two years ago promises to play a central role in Spain’s April 28 national election.
While the ruling Socialists led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez are trying to focus on social issues, the opposition parties on the right are competing for which of them can take a harder stance on reigning in the secessionists.
That includes the upstart far-right Vox party, which is hoping to increase voter support with a pledge to crush the separatist movement by stripping Catalonia’s regional government of its powers and recentralizing control in Madrid, the capital.
A few thousand supporters came to an outdoor rally by Vox on Saturday in downtown Barcelona, the largest city in northeastern Catalonia.
Many carried Spanish flags and greeted Vox leader Santiago Abascal with chants of “President! President!” when he took the stage.
“Catalonia is not a nation! It is something much more important; it is a part of Spain!” Abascal told the crowd on Saturday.
Abascal railed against the attempt by Catalan separatist lawmakers to declare independence in 2017, a fateful decision that set off Spain’s worst constitutional crisis in nearly four decades. The separatist movement’s leaders are now either on trial in the Supreme Court or are outlaws from Spain after fleeing the country.
“The most sacred thing is unity,” Abascal said. “We will suspend Catalonia’s self-government, intervene in its administration, and outlaw the separatists.”
The polarizing presence of Vox was met by protests from Catalan separatist groups that turned violent. Protesters threw objects and burned wood in the street during run-ins with police in riot gear, who deployed to keep them separate from the campaign event.
Catalan regional police said they arrested seven protesters, three for attacking a person going to the nationalist rally. Police said five people, including one officer, received light injuries.
The turnout for Abascal was tiny compared to the gatherings of hundreds of thousands that separatists have mustered for several years in the region, where voters are roughly equally split over the question of secession, according to the most recent regional election results.
Its hard talk against Catalonia worked for Vox in regional elections in Andalusia in December, when it became the first far-right party to secure parliamentary seats since Spain installed a democracy following dictator Gen. Francisco Franco’s death in 1975.
Polls now show Abascal’s party may end up holding the key to allowing the conservative Popular Party and the pro-business Citizens party to kick Sanchez’s Socialists out of power on the national level after the April 28 election.
For Arantxa Giner, a 36-year-old consultant in European affairs, Vox’s no-nonsense stance on Catalan separatism is worth her vote.
“For me, it is the most important (issue), because it’s true that the other parties in Spain, when they have to deal with the nationalists in the Basque region and here, they are a bit scared of them,” Giner said. “”I think that no Western democracy is going to allow separatists to ask for more powers . when they are not loyal to the state.”
While not anti-European Union, Vox wants to portray itself as the defender of traditional Spanish customs, such as the bullfight and hunting. It also wants to roll back domestic violence laws and stop unauthorized immigration.
Many in Spain fear that Vox will push the Popular Party and Citizens toward more radical, far-right positions.
“Their political principles go against fundamental rights,” Ismael Benito, a 23-year-old academic, said at an anti-Vox rally. “They force other right-wing parties in Spain to go to their far-nationalism and completely fascist right-wing.”