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More than 40,000 Spanish nationalists protest against government talks with Catalan leaders

More than 40,000 Spanish nationalists protest against government talks with Catalan leaders

Tens of thousands of right-wing Spanish nationalists demonstrated in Madrid on Sunday to call for early elections and oppose proposed talks between the government and Catalan pro-independence parties.

Demonstrators chanted “Spain! Spain!” and “We want to vote!” at the Plaza de Colon in the largest protest Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has faced since taking office eight months ago.

Both centre-right and far-right parties backed the rally, seeking to capitalise on anger with the socialist-led government over efforts to establish a dialogue with Catalonia’s separatist leaders.

The government’s recent proposal to appoint a rapporteur in talks to address the Catalan independence crisis has galvanized the opposition, which has portrayed the move as a betrayal.

Around 45,000 people attended the protest in Madrid city centre, organisers said. Some banners at the rally read “Sanchez, liar” and “Spain is not negotiable and cannot be sold”.

The conservative Popular Party leader Pablo Casado told reporters: “The time of Sanchez’s government has ended.”

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

His government is under pressure from opposing sides of the Catalan issue. The Catalan groups want a referendum on independence included on the agenda for talks, which Madrid will not accept.

Protesters fill Plaza de Colon (Getty Images)

Mr Sanchez defended his position on Sunday, telling a separate rally in the northern city of Santander: “The government works for the unity of Spain and that means to unify Spaniards and not to put one against the other as the right is doing today in Colon square.”

The prime minister will face more questions about the Catalan issue this week. Tuesday sees the start of the trial of 12 Catalan independence leaders, who face up to 25 years in prison on charges of rebellion for their role in a failed secession bid from Spain that they are accused of spearheading in 2017.

The government also faces a key vote on Wednesday on its 2019 budget proposal, which will likely fail without the support of Catalan parties.

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But those parties have said 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.

Recent opinion polls have shown the conservative Popular Party, centre-right Ciudadanos and far-right Vox could together win a majority of seats in parliament if new elections were held, allowing them to replace the socialist government.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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