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article imageSpanish PM enters campaign mode with attack on Catalan separatists

By Mathieu Gorse and Alvaro Villalobos (AFP)     Dec 12, 2018 in World

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez lashed out at Catalan separatists and promised a huge jump in the minimum wage on Wednesday as he geared up for an early election widely expected next year.

Sanchez came to power in June after a surprise parliamentary vote of no-confidence against the previous conservative government of Mariano Rajoy.

However his Socialists control just 84 seats in the 350-seat parliament and his government's days appear numbered.

Catalan separatist parties, which backed the no-confidence vote which brought Sanchez to power, now refuse to back his 2019 budget because public prosecutors are seeking jail terms of up to 25 years for Catalan leaders detained after last year's failed attempt by Catalonia to break away from Spain.

Without their support, the government will not be able to pass the spending plan.

Sanchez had called for renewed dialogue with Catalonia after he came to power, but his government adopted a drastically sharper tone against Catalan separatists this week.

In a debate in parliament on Wednesday, Sanchez compared Catalonia's secession drive to Britain's campaign to leave the European Union, saying both movements were built on "a tale of invented grievances, magnified by manipulation".

The Spanish prime minister added that the Catalan separatists "only have lies to back their political positions."

- Andalusia elections fallout -

Sanchez also warned that the Spanish state would "respond firmly" to any violation of the constitution.

His comments came after Catalan president Quim Torra urged Catalans over the weekend to follow the example of Slovenia, which unilaterally declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, triggering a 10-day armed conflict with the Yugoslav army that killed 62 people.

Madrid had already threatened on Monday to take control of security in Catalonia after pro-independence protesters blocked a major highway at the weekend for 15 hours without any intervention by Catalan regional police, the Mossos d'Esquadra.

Sanchez has adopted a "harder tone" to "inoculate himself" against critics who accuse him of being soft on Catalan separatists, said Pablo Fernandez Vazquez, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh who focuses on Spanish politics.

The change in tone follows an early regional election in Andalusia, a Socialist stronghold, on December 2 which saw centre-right Ciudadanos and far-right party Vox, which have adopted a hardline against Catalan separatism, perform well while the Socialists lost ground.

"I don't think the Socialist party wants to go to the polls in a position where it could be seen as a friend of the separatists," said Berta Barbet, a political scientist who is in charge of a popular politics blog called Politikon.

- Social issues focus -

Sanchez hit back against the conservative parties during the parliamentary debate, accusing them of seeking to ally themselves in Andalusia with far-right Vox to govern in a "shameful pact" which represents a "stale Spain".

He also announced that his cabinet would on December 21 approve one of the key measures of his draft 2019 budget by decree, a 22 percent increase next year in the monthly minimum wage to 1,050 euros ($1,192).

"A rich country can't have poor workers," Sanchez said, adding that this will be the biggest increase in the minimum wage since 1977.

The prime minister had said earlier this month that his cabinet would approve the budget and send it to parliament in January.

Fernandez Vazquez said it was in the interest of the Socialists, and its ally the far-left Podemos party, "to talk about other issues" other than Catalonia and focus on social issues "which put them in a more advantageous position".

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