Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez faced sharp criticism Sunday for his handling of violent Catalan separatist protests ahead of next month's general election, even as calm returned to Barcelona and other cities.
Hundreds of people packed a square in front of Catalonia's regional government headquarters in Barcelona for a rally by the centre-right, pro-union Ciudadanos party.
They called on the government in Madrid to restore order in Catalonia and defend the rights of Catalans opposed to independence. Many waved Spanish, Catalan and European Union flags and chanted "Viva Espana!".
Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera repeated a call for Sanchez to suspend Catalonia's autonomy, as Madrid did in 2017 after the Catalan parliament declared independence following a banned referendum.
He also urged Sanchez to get rid of Quim Torra, the head of Catalonia's separatist regional government.
"What is he waiting for?" Rivera asked.
The streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities have been rocked by protests since Spain's Supreme Court sentenced nine separatist leaders last Monday to jail terms of up to 13 years for sedition over the failed 2017 independence bid.
Demonstrators have set fire to cars and garbage bins and thrown rocks at police, who have responded by using their batons and firing rubber bullets.
Nearly 600 people have been injured in clashes with police since the protests started. A policeman and a protester remain in critical condition, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau said Sunday.
- 'What more must happen?' -
Speaking at a party meeting in Toledo, central Spain, the head of the main conservative opposition Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, said Spain needed "a real government, a government that leads.
"What more must happen in Catalonia for order to be restored? That Barcelona be set ablaze? They already do it every night," he added.
On Saturday, Torra called for "unconditional" talks with Sanchez. He appeared to be trying to ensure that a legal referendum on independence, currently a non-starter for Madrid, would be up for discussion.
Sanchez, who came to power in June 2018 with the support of Catalan separatist parties, refused to meet Torra until he "clearly" condemned this week's violence and recognised that half of Catalonia's roughly 7.5 million residents do not want independence.
A poll published in July by a public Catalan institute showed support for an independent Catalonia at its lowest level in two years: 48.3 percent of people against and 44 percent in favour.
Last Monday's convictions of the Catalan separatist leaders has thrust the issue to the front of the political agenda ahead of Spain's November 10 general election, its fourth in as many years.
The first poll since Monday's verdict suggests the ruling Socialists are likely to secure the most votes but once again fall short of a majority. The PP was tipped to make significant gains.
Published by the daily El Mundo on Thursday, the survey suggested Sanchez's Socialists would capture 122 seats in the 350-seat parliament, one less that it won in the last election in April, while the PP would win 98 seats, up from 66.
- 'Tired of protesting' -
"Order and territory has never been a winning bet for the Socialists," Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Madrid's Carlos III university, wrote in a blog post.
The Catalan crisis would "increase polarisation" and that would benefit parties with more extreme positions such as the far-right Vox and radical separatists CUP.
Barcelona had returned to relative calm Saturday night after six days of protests by separatists.
Local police said around 2,700 separatists demonstrated outside the central government's office in Barcelona on Sunday evening, according to city hall.
Some people threw bags full of garbage over the security barriers set up around the building but there was no violence.
"I am tired of protesting but I will do it as many times as it is needed," said Jordi Plana, a 50-year-old pastry chief.
"If there isn't a ruckus it is clear they won't listen to us."
Earlier Sunday Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said the "disturbances are getting smaller but we will keeping moving forward with our plan to end them."