Catalan Socialist leader urges more dialogue to resolve separatism dispute

FILE PHOTO: Salvador Illa, candidate for the regional government of Catalonia from the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC), speaks during a campaign meeting ahead of the Catalan elections on February 14, in Barcelona, Spain, February 4, 2021. REUTERS/Albert Gea/File Photo/File Photo

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Dialogue must remain the cornerstone on which Catalonia and national authorities resolve a long dispute over its independence drive, regardless of who becomes its next chief minister, the region's Socialist leader said.

Salvador Illa, who opposes Catalan independence, got more votes than any other candidate in a regional election on Feb. 14.

He has said he will try to form a government, though there is little chance of it gaining support in parliament, where separatist parties, themselves negotiating to form a coalition, hold a majority of seats.

Whatever form the next regional administration takes, any repeat of Catalonia's chaotic independence bid of 2017 is unlikely, with concerns about COVID-19 now uppermost in voters' minds.

Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez launched talks on the independence issue last year in exchange for votes at the national parliament from the leftist, pro-independence Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, which came second in February's election.

"We will defend, practice and favour dialogue as much as we can," Illa, who served as Sanchez's health minister until January, told Reuters at his party's Barcelona headquarters.

Sanchez's government is considering pardoning nine separatist leaders jailed over their role in the 2017 independence bid, which was declared illegal by Spanish courts.

Illa, who declined to say if he backed such pardon, said the cooperation between Esquerra and the Socialists in Madrid should not be affected by whoever heads the Catalan government, and that his party could potentially back measures from an Esquerra-led regional government.

The parties differ in their response to riots over the jailing of a rapper for glorifying terrorism and insulting the Spanish monarchy that have rocked Barcelona for two weeks.

Esquerra has accepted discussing softening police tactics against demonstrators, such as banning sponge rounds, in exchange for support from the far-left CUP party.

Illa called the questioning of police tactics "irresponsible".

Over 150 business and social associations have penned a manifesto calling for a stable regional government and "maximum support" to Catalan police to restore order.

(Reporting by Joan Faus, editing by Andrei Khalip and John Stonestreet)

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