A left-wing Catalan party that holds the balance of power after the Spanish elections could insist on an independence referendum and an end to the prosecution of separatist politicians as the price of its support.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s centre-left PSOE party topped Sunday’s contest, but needs the support of smaller parties to govern because it did not win an absolute majority.

But Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which topped the vote in its region to win 15 seats, said that while it was willing to co-operate it would not write a “blank cheque” for Mr Sanchez.

“The question is not what ERC will do with the PSOE, but what the PSOE will do with Catalonia,” Gabriel Rufián, the ERC’s deputy leader in the congress, told Catalunya Ràdio.

“We will ask for a negotiation that brings together all the forces, that discusses a referendum and laws in order to lift the case against the separatist comrades.”

The Spanish government has been refusing to hold an official independence referendum for Catalonia, despite a popular separatist movement winning control of the region’s local government.

After the local Catalan administration held a referendum of its own and unilaterally declared independence in 2017, Spain’s supreme court ruled the move was illegal, and issued orders for the arrest of many pro-independence politicians.

One such politician imprisoned for his role in the declaration of independence is Oriol Junqueras – the president of the ERC party the socialists must now try to do a deal with.

Mr Sanchez is likely to seek the support of Spanish leftist group Podemos, but would need the support of at least one smaller regionalist party to get near an actual majority.

PSOE, Podemos and ERC together would give any government a narrow majority to pass budgets.

Alternatively the socialists could try to rule as a minority, looking for support in votes on an ad hoc basis.

While it is relatively easy for minority governments to gain power under Spain’s constitution, Mr Sanchez was already forced to call the snap election after regionalist parties refused to back his old government in a key vote.

Carmen Calvo, Spain’s deputy prime minister, said yesterday morning that “the PSOE will try a government alone” – suggesting the socialists would not formally bring other parties into their administration, but instead work out an arrangement for confidence votes.

Coalitions with other parties – such as the esoteric liberal nationalist party Citizens – appear to be off the table.

That party’s leader Albert Rivera had said during the campaign that he would do no deal with the socialists and has already declared himself “leader of the opposition”.

And yesterday the party said again that it wants to lead Spain’s political opposition, ruling out entering into a governing alliance with the Socialists.

Speaking on the day after the ballot, Citizens spokeswoman Inés Arrimadas rejected entering any negotiations with the party of Mr Sanchez.

A grand coalition with the defeat of the conservative Partido Popular is mathematically possible but politically extremely unlikely.

The right-wing parties – Citizens, Partido Popular and the far-right Vox – do not have enough seats between them as a bloc to form a government.

Spanish politicians were doing the maths on how Mr Sanchez might survive the next four years without a parliamentary majority.

In addition to Citizens, the other two parties are fighting over leadership of the right-wing after falling short of a majority in the parliament’s Lower House.

The centre-right Citizens obtained 57 seats, more than in the last election three years ago.

But it is still behind its conservative rival in the right wing, the Partido Popular, which halved its presence in the Congress of Deputies, from 137 to 66 lawmakers.

The Partido Popular, dominant when power in Spain was a matter of only conservatives and Socialists, has acknowledged the bad results but says that it remains the leading opposition force.

Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Vox far-right party that went from zero to 24 deputies, yesterday blamed the right’s inability to unseat Mr Sánchez on the Partido Popular’s poor performance.

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