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Spain's prime minister will work with a new Catalonia government, as long as it operates within the law

Spain's prime minister will work with a new Catalonia government, as long as it operates within the law
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks at a news conference Dec. 22, the day after Catalonia's regional election. (Oscar Del Pozo / AFP/Getty Images)

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Friday rejected an invitation to meet with Catalonia's pro-independence former president, saying he would instead welcome dialogue with a new regional government in light of Thursday's snap election results.

Rajoy, who in October called for the election in hopes of quelling a secession drive, saw voters give three pro-independence parties a 70-seat majority in the 135-member regional parliament.

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The anti-independence party Ciudadanos, or Citizens, gained the most seats of any individual party with 37, but fell far short of the 68 needed for a majority.

Rajoy, while declining to meet with former Catalonia leader Carles Puigdemont, said he should meet with Ciudadanos party leader Ines Arrimadas, a sign of the ongoing rancor between the unity and independence sides.

"The person I need to sit down with is the person who won the election, and that's Arrimadas," he said during a news conference in Madrid.

Rajoy congratulated Ciudadanos on gaining the plurality of seats in parliament.

"The negative thing about these results, from my point of view, is that those of us who wanted change haven't won enough seats to achieve that," Rajoy said. "It is evident that the rupture the radicalization has generated in Catalan society is very big."

He said he was willing to hold dialogue with the government that forms in the region as long as it acted "within the law." Spain's constitution does not allow unilateral secession of the country's 17 regions.

Rajoy's Partido Popular, or People's Party, was dealt a significant blow in the Catalonia election. The party lost eight seats in the regional parliament and is represented in only three out of four provinces, making the governing party of Spain a negligible force in Catalonia and undermining Rajoy's credibility in negotiating with the region's leaders.

The election gave separatist parties the most votes overall with Together for Catalonia gaining 34 seats, Republican Left, 32, and Popular Unity Candidacy, four, for a total of 70. Whether the parties can form a coalition to govern remains unclear.

Catalonia, which has a population of about 7.5 million, like other regions has local powers to set policy for education, healthcare and some other services, but relies on the central government for tax collection.

Though independentistas saw success in Thursday's vote, many questions remain, including: Who will lead the next Catalan government and how will the government pursue independence?

The two main candidates for Catalonia's presidency are currently unable to accept their parliament seats, as one is imprisoned and the other faces possible arrest.

Oriol Junqueras, leader of separatist group Esquerra Republicana, or Republican Left, is in jail outside Madrid while being investigated for rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.

Puigdemont, whose party Junts Per Catalunya, or Together for Catalonia, won the majority of separatist seats, has been in self-imposed exile in Brussels since October. He faces possible detention if he were to return to Spain.

"What is going to happen?" said Barcelona politics professor Marina Diaz-Cristobal. "Frankly, I don't think anyone knows at this point."

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Catalonia's independence movement has triggered Spain's most serious political crisis since its return to democracy after the death of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.

Catalonia has its own language and culture, which were repressed under Franco. It has become Spain's most prosperous region, accounting for about 20% of the country's economy and more than a quarter of Spanish exports. Barcelona, the region's capital, is one of Europe's biggest tourist hubs.

Many Catalans have said they resent having their taxes subsidize poorer parts of Spain, especially considering the country has recently emerged from an economic crisis.

An October referendum on independence, deemed illegal by the central government in Madrid, swung in favor of secession but saw a turnout of less than half of eligible voters.

Rajoy responded to the regional government's unilateral declaration of independence later that month by removing all members of the Catalan parliament and calling regional elections, hoping to quell separatism. His gamble was dealt a significant blow Thursday.

While separatists celebrated the victory as an affirmation of their independence project, the election results confirmed the deep divisions among the region's citizens over secession or unity with the central government.

Jose Fernandez-Albertos, a political scientist at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científica in Madrid, said the stand-off between pro- and anti-independence factions has made compromise nearly impossible.

"The distance between the two blocs is huge and that has made some extreme candidates from both sides viable," he said. "Everyone perceived as being compromising with the other group is electorally unpopular."

To form a government, separatists need to combine their seats and select a president. Leaders from the smallest and most extreme of the three groups, Candidatura d'Unitat Popular, or Popular Unity Candidacy, said they will only join a coalition if it promises to build a Catalonian republic

Rajoy could dissolve parliament again if Catalonia's government pursued another unilateral independence declaration, and the central government in Madrid has opposed authorizing a referendum on independence.

Jaume Pi, politics editor of the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia, said it would be unwise for the Catalonia parliament to hold another unauthorized referendum. The October referendum came at a "strong emotional cost" to the Catalonian public, he said.

"There has been an emotional change" in the electorate, Pi said. "It was a longer and harder autumn than we can remember in years, since before the transition to democracy."

Bernhard is a special correspondent.

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