The leader of the Esquerra Republicana (ERC) party, Oriol Junqueras, has held a press conference from prison for the first time since his imprisonment in November 2017.
It follows a press conference from prison given by Jordi Sànchez, the main candidate in the forthcoming elections for the Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) group.
The electoral authority announced earlier this week that it had approved requests from the jailed leaders running in the Spanish election to join political rallies and press events via videolink.
The Catalan News Agency (ACN) hosted the Oriol Junqueras event via videolink, with journalists asking questions from its newsroom in Barcelona, and Junqueras, who is Esquerra’s No.1 candidate in the Spanish election, responding from the Soto del Real prison, in Madrid.
Junqueras was vice-president of Catalonia during the 2017 independence referendum and is currently on trial over his actions around the time of the vote.
During the press conference, Oriol Junqueras implied that his party would support Socialist (PSOE) leader Pedro Sánchez for another term as Spanish prime minister, but ‘with conditions’.
He said Esquerra would push for a recognised independence referendum – yet he did not clarify how it would respond in the event that Sánchez refused to negotiate a referendum before his investiture.
The former Catalan vice-president said that he had an ‘obligation to try to avoid a government with the far-right,’ referring to the possibility of a coalition government involving the right wing Ciudadanos (Cs), the People’s Party (PP) and far-right Vox. However, he warned there would be no ‘gifts’ for the Socialists.
‘We won’t set any red lines that become a blank check for the far right, nor will we give a blank check that becomes a red line for our independence aspirations,’ he said.
Like fellow jailed pro-independence candidate Jordi Sànchez, he warned of the possibility that the Socialists end up forming a coalition with Ciudadanos (Cs), which calls for suspending Catalonia’s self-rule in favour of direct rule from Madrid until calls for independence die down.
From Soto del Real prison, as reporters repeatedly questioned him over the contradiction between Esquerra’s determination for and the Socialists’ denial of a public vote, he said the stronger Junqueras’ party was in the next Spanish Congress, the more power it would have to put a referendum on the negotiating table.
For him, there is ‘room for dialogue’ between Esquerra’s and the Socialist Party’s stances.
Junqueras insisted on engaging in talks with the Socialists over such an independence vote, and added: ‘If we get a broad majority, we’ll be in a better position to argue for a referendum.’
Pressed on whether a referendum would be a red line for backing a Socialist government, Junqueras emphasised that even from jail he has maintained his conviction and spoken up for self-determination.
‘Once this press conference is over, I’ll stand up and go back to my cell. And yet, I’m still defending my political objectives,’ he said.
Junqueras has been imprisoned for more than 500 days awaiting a verdict in his trial over alleged rebellion, misuse of funds and disobedience. Two months into the court proceedings, he described Spain’s approach to the independence bid as ‘repression’.
‘We have an 88-year history. No other party has undergone more repression than ours. No party has had more jailed or exiled politicians than us,’ he claimed.
He also said that he could not ‘take it as a given’ that he would be found guilty because it would be ‘extremely bad, unfair, negative and unlawful’.
He said he is keeping a ‘calm head’ despite the ‘very long schedule’ of the trial, including the one-hour commute between prison and the Supreme Court.
‘I take the opportunity to do as much work as possible, write notes to our lawyers, and sometimes I use the time to write something for my children,’ he explained.
After months of friction between Esquerra and the other mainstream pro-independence party, Junts per Catalunya (JxCat), Junqueras refrained from criticising his Catalan government coalition partners for the benefit of the movement.
‘We represent [the independence movement] better than anyone. To the rest, all the best,’ he said. ‘Our common aim is much more important than the rows between us.’
He even sent a ‘brotherly hug’ to former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, exiled in Belgium, with whom he led the government that called a referendum and declared independence in 2017: ‘I thank him for his commitment. We must work so we can all leave prison and come back to Catalonia.’
Junqueras has been suspended from the Catalan parliament but is running simultaneously to become an MP in the Spanish Congress and a member of the European Parliament.
Although he would not be drawn on which of the posts is his priority, he highlighted that his role in the Spanish Congress would be to ‘give visibility’ to the jailed leaders’ situation.