Madrid Demonstrators Reject Government’s Catalonia Policy

February 11, 2019 Updated: February 11, 2019

MADRID—Tens of thousands of people waving Spain’s red-and-yellow flag demonstrated in Madrid on Feb. 10 to oppose any concessions by the government to Catalan pro-independence parties and to call for early elections.

Demonstrators chanting “Spain! Spain!” and “We want to vote!” filled the Plaza de Colon in the city center in the largest protest Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has faced in eight months in office.

The opposition center-right and right-wing parties called the rally, seeking to make a show of force against Sanchez by capitalizing on anger with Catalonia’s separatist leaders and the government’s efforts to establish a dialogue with them.

Around 45,000 people attended, officials said.

The government’s proposal on Feb. 5 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 time of Sanchez’s government has ended,” Popular Party leader Pablo Casado told reporters before the protest. Some banners at the rally read “Sanchez, liar” and “Spain is not negotiable and cannot be sold”.

Sanchez, who replaced a conservative government last June in a vote of confidence, 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.

The government is squeezed on both sides of the Catalan issue: Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said on Feb. 8 the 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.

The government faces a key vote on Feb. 13 on its 2019 budget proposal. 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, center-right Ciudadanos and far-right Vox could together win a majority of seats in parliament if elections were held, allowing them to replace the Socialist government.

By Ingrid Melander & Guillermo Martinez