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Podemos may hold the key to controlling Catalonia after election

[MADRID] The anti-establishment party Podemos is poised to become a key part of the puzzle when Catalan politicians come to piece together a new government after this month's regional election.

Polls suggest it's a toss-up whether the three Catalan separatists parties retain their majority after the vote on Dec 21. If they fall short, Podemos's Catalan ally, known as Catalunya en Comu, may determine whether the separatist bloc gets another chance to govern.

In a region polarised by October's scorched-earth dash for independence, Catalunya en Comu is alone in the centre ground, neither strongly for or against a break away from the rest of Spain. Instead, 43-year-old leader Xavier Domenech is calling on Spain to allow Catalans a vote on the issue, with opinion among his party colleagues divided on which side they should back if such a vote were to be held.

"It's necessary for all Catalans - not just some of us - to reach an agreement about the terms under which a referendum could take place," Mr Domenech said last week.

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"The pre-condition for having talks about a referendum is getting a broad agreement within Catalonia."

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called this month's snap election as part of his plan to restore order in Catalonia after the Regional Parliament declared independence following an illegal referendum on Oct 1. As well as dissolving the regional assembly, Mr Rajoy fired the government and took direct control of the regional administration.

Ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is up in court in Brussels on Monday where a judge will consider an international arrest warrant issued by Spain's National Court. Mr Puigdemont's former vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, faces his own hearing in the Supreme Court in Madrid as he seeks to be released from jail to join the campaign.

Mr Domenech is betting that pushing for a referendum rather than independence itself may allow him to muster support from across the political spectrum in Catalonia.

While polls show the separatist parties are set to win about 46 per cent, about three out four voters are in favour of a referendum endorsed by the Spanish state. Catalan Socialist Leader Miquel Iceta last year supported the idea of a legal referendum if a reform of the Spanish constitution fails to satisfy the electorate.

Such a development could make life uncomfortable for Mr Rajoy, who has refused to allow the Catalans the right to self-determination, said Jordi Sevilla, a former Socialist minister. The idea would likely attract broad support in Catalonia, but it would also risk triggering similar demands in other parts of Spain, the Basque Country in particular.

"If the Spanish government gives in on that, then the constitutional pact blows up," said Mr Sevilla, who is vice-president at consultancy firm Llorente & Cuenca. "Then you divide Spaniards up into first and second-class citizens and you can't deny the same path for other regions."