Divided and deadlocked since the failure of their 2017 secession bid, Catalan separatists are hoping Spain's jailing of nine of 12 of their leaders will unite the ranks and give fresh impetus for change.

The impasse has fuelled growing frustration within the pro-independence movement, raising concerns about the radicalisation of certain fringe elements.

'Out cold'

"The movement has been out cold" since 2017, said political scientist Berta Barbet.

Its leaders had promised a quick and easy path to independence which proved to be "unrealistic" when faced with total opposition from Madrid, and ambivalence at home, with the region totally divided over the matter, she said.

The Spanish government responded rapidly, suspending the region's autonomy and dismissing the pro-independence government of Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution.

But others stayed behind and were put on trial, with nine of them handed jail terms of between nine and 13 years for sedition.

Since then, "there has not been any substantive thought about how to move forward," explained Joan Botella, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Despite their lack of direction, the secessionists remain in power, dominating the regional parliament and running many local authorities in this wealthy northeastern region of some 7.5 million people.

"Morale is low, but the electoral weight of the independence movement is still there, it's not in decline," Barbet said.

Internal divisions

While only backed by just under half of the region's population, the Catalan separatist movement draws support from a wide range of actors, from the extreme anti-capitalist left, to Christian Democrats and their ilk on the right.

So when the October referendum went up in smoke, it brought their political differences sharply to the fore.

And it also went beyond questions of ideology: "The movement is divided between those who are prepared to do anything at any price, and those not willing to take the risks that would involve," Barbet says.

Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia (JxCAT) backs a strategy of confrontation with Madrid, while the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) headed by his former deputy Oriol Junqueras, who was handed 13 years in prison, wants dialogue and would rather avoid the unilateral route.

Twelve Catalan leaders were put on trial for their role in the failed independence bid of 2017
Twelve Catalan leaders were put on trial for their role in the failed independence bid of 2017 dpa / Daniel Reinhardt

And the region itself remains divided over the question of separating from Spain, with September poll showing 44 percent in favour but 48.3 percent against.

And this division is reflected within the government of Catalan president Quim Torra. It groups JxCAT and ERC but has lost the support of the leftwing anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), which is crucial for him to have a majority.

The divisions are also evident between civil society groups, with the two biggest groups ANC and Omnium Cultural growing apart as hardliners from the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) have surged to the fore.

"There is a big mess within the pro-independence world, the outlook is very confusing," said Botella. "Nobody knows who is in charge and that blocks everything."

Response to the verdict

Pro-separatist parties and associations have vowed to unite and "respond en masse" to the verdict with demonstrations, roadblocks and a possible strike, but have pledged it will involve "non-violent struggle and peaceful civil disobedience".

After years of large-scale demonstrations which for the most part have been peaceful, police said in late last month they had arrested a group of separatists on suspicion of preparing violent attacks, charging seven of them with belonging to a "terrorist organisation".

The arrests have raised concerns about the radicalisation of fringe elements within the separatist movement.

Broken dialogue

And the tension has led to some sharp exchanges between the government of Pedro Sanchez and Catalonia's pro-independence leadership, with the Spanish premier demanding they firmly condemn violence.

Should things turn nasty, Sanchez said he would not hesitate to renew a suspension of Catalan autonomy.

When the Socialist leader took power in June 2018, due in part to support from separatist parties, there was a brief honeymoon period which saw Sanchez and Torra promising to pursue dialogue to find "a democratic response" to the Catalan crisis.

Madrid has, however, shown no flexibility in its stance on the separatists' request for a legally binding independence referendum.

But by February, all bets were off as the leaders' trial opened at the Supreme Court in Madrid, and a day later, the separatist parties voted down the budget in parliament.

Sanchez then called early elections for April but the outcome was inconclusive, prompting yet another general election that will be held in November.