Oriol Junqueras, a jailed separatist who is now key to Spain's future

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The day before he was going to be jailed, Oriol Junqueras said goodbye to his wife and two children at their home in an industrial suburb of Barcelona and climbed into a car.

It was November 2017 and the atmosphere in Spain was febrile. On the six-hour drive to Madrid, his advisers tried to reassure the former vice president of Catalonia that he would be back that night. A stoical Junqueras disagreed.

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Junqueras had just watched Catalan President Carles Puigdemont attempt to declare independence from Spain and cap a month of chaos that was still reverberating across Europe. The Spanish government had hit back, ousting the administration in Barcelona and imposing direct rule from Madrid.

“I’d more than come to terms with the personal costs, Junqueras, 51, said this week in a written response to questions from a prison an hour north of Barcelona. “In my family, the repression has always been there. They persecuted my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother and two great grandfathers. We accept it with ataraxia.

The events of more than three years ago still cast a shadow over Spain after the trauma tore into national politics and divided parties and the country over what to do about the would-be breakaway region. With Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez starting to piece together a fragile consensus over the path forward, much now depends on Junqueras.

Catalans head into a regional election on Sunday with polls showing a three-way tie between his Esquerra Republicana party, Puigdemont’s more radical group and Sanchez’s Socialists. With two smaller separatist parties in the mix, the most likely outcome is a pro-independence coalition. They have all promised not to form a government with the Socialists.

But tensions between Esquerra and Puigdemont’s Junts Per Catalunya, which have governed Catalonia together for the past five years, have escalated as they try to out-flank each other. And if Esquerra can edge ahead to claim the presidency, Sanchez may have a Catalan government he can do business with as Spain fights the pandemic and its economic fallout.

“Junts’ approach is more aggressive and focused on getting back that great moment of mobilization that happened in 2017, said Antonio Barroso, a managing director at London research firm Teneo Intelligence. “Esquerra is more focused on managing day to day issues and sees the independence as a long-term goal.

Sanchez came to power in the wake of the Catalan crisis after ousting his People’s Party predecessor with the backing of the separatists. But it took him more than two years—and two Spanish elections—before he could even pass a budget.

Socialist candidate Salvador Illa said it’s time to “turn the page on the events that have kept the region in a political gridlock. It was Esquerra’s support in the Spanish Parliament that helped the government get its budget agreed in November. More recently, though, as the campaign heated up, Esquerra voted against the government’s decree to administer European recovery funds, threatening the approval of the bill.

The election in Catalonia is also being closely watched in Spain’s Basque country where separatist sentiment also runs high. Basque nationalists reached a political settlement with Madrid after decades of tension and violence.

Catalonia “needs a government that can achieve two things: to actually function and to find a path of dialog to channel the political conflict, Andoni Ortuzar, head of the Basque nationalist party, said in an interview with El Pais. They need to find “a formula to live together for the next 10 to 15 years, he said. Puigdemont and Junqueras embody the two faces of the Catalan separatist movement—the president who ran away and his deputy who stayed to face the courts and ended up in jail. Puigdemont has remained in Brussels since the crisis triggered by their illegal independence referendum.

Junqueras’s party has been fighting for an independent Catalonia for almost a century. Puigdemont’s group emerged in the run up to the illegal referendum. Both push a narrative of Catalan suffering and repression, albeit in one of the country’s richest regions.

“Pro-independence parties are managing the frustration of secessionist voters who—following completely unreal promises—hit a wall of reality, said Barroso. “They are fighting for about half of the votes, so there’s an incentive to remain in the rhetoric of the events of 2017.

Junqueras, a former history professor who wrote a thesis on the Medieval Catalan economy, insists that his ultimate goal remains another referendum and he won’t stop “until Catalonia becomes an independent state, according to his letter.

Serving 13 years for his part in the push to secede from Spain, he remains Esquerra’s president and throughout his time in jail he has maintained frequent video calls with the party leadership and receives occasional visits. The Spanish courts have allowed him out on release and he has attended campaign events, even though he’s barred from public office.

Junqueras, whose academic mentor was assassinated by ETA, shared a platform at one recent event with Arnaldo Otegi, a former member of the Basque terrorist group. Otegi was jailed multiple times, including for his role in the kidnapping of a businessman in the late 1980s.

Yet behind the optics, his focus is on what comes next. Esquerra’s campaign posters feature both Junqueras and Pere Aragones, a protégé who is now the party’s candidate for the Catalan presidency. Their friendship goes back to before Junqueras entered politics in 2011, when the two used to give conferences together on politics and history.

In contrast to Puigdemont, the strategy is to play the long game, said Aragones. “An Esquerra victory would greatly strengthen our position at a national level, he said.

The movement faces subsiding support for breaking away from the rest of Spain since the drama of 2017, and even then it never quite reached 50%. Indeed, appetite for independence in the polls is lower than in Scotland, whose leadership is also demanding the right to hold a referendum.

When given multiple options, 34% of respondents to a January survey by the Catalan government’s pollster said the region should be an independent state, the lowest since at least 2014. On a binary “yes' or “no' question, 44.5% said they wanted Catalonia to become independent.

Spanish press reports in recent years showed the mistrust between Junqueras’s team and Puigdemont in the weeks before the illegal vote. In a leaked transcript of a phone call, two advisers discuss their alarm at the fact the region was completely unprepared for independence.

Those events remain at the forefront of Junqueras’s mind. In his letter, he recalled the images of police violence that for a few weeks had the eyes of the world on Barcelona.

“It’s difficult to explain the feelings experienced during that period, he wrote. “We saw the best and the worst of people. Every single one of us will remember those days with a sense of hope and we’ll tell our children about them. I’m convinced that we’ll do it again.

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