The jailed leader of Catalonia's main pro-independence party has backed away from demands for unilateral secession from Spain, days ahead of regional elections that surveys suggest will produce a hung parliament.
The independence drive has tipped Spain into its worst political crisis since the return of democracy in the 1970s, dividing opinion and prompting a business exodus in the province and denting a rebound in the national economy.
Opinion polls predict secessionist parties in Catalonia, a former principality with its own language, face a tough task to regain power in Thursday's ballot, with neither the pro-independence nor the pro-unity camps tipped to win a parliamentary majority.
In reply to written Reuters questions passed to him in prison, Oriol Junqueras, whose Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left) party is expected to become the largest separatist force in parliament, struck a conciliatory tone.
Junqueras, who is in custody on allegations of rebellion and sedition, wrote that he would continue to pursue independence if he becomes Catalonia's next president, but also to "build bridges and shake hands" with the Spanish state.
"I can assure you that we are democrats before we are separatists and that the aim [of gaining independence] does not always justify the means," he said in comments that appear to drop his party's earlier demand for unilateral secession.
Junqueras was deputy leader of the Catalan government that was dismissed by Madrid. The Catalan regional government was removed from office by Spain's national government in late October after regional lawmakers passed a declaration of independence that Spanish authorities deemed illegal. That came after an Oct. 1 independence referendum in Catalonia which the Spanish Constitutional Court disallowed. Catalonia is currently being run by direct rule from Madrid.
The upcoming election looks like being a tight race between Catalans who support secession and those who prefer to remain in Spain.
A lot is at stake when polling stations open for 7.5 million voters in a region that accounts for 19 percent of Spain's gross domestic product. A triumph for pro-independence parties could unleash further social and political mayhem that would ripple unpredictably across Spain, which has the fourth-largest economy in the 19-country eurozone.
Not all Catalans are keen on breaking away from Spain, with polls showing they are roughly evenly split. And while those who voted in the Oct. 1 independence referendum were overwhelmingly in favor, less than half of eligible voters went to the polls in a vote that had been outlawed by Spain's Constitutional Court and was marred by police violence trying to stop it. In the weeks since the Oct. 1 vote, more than 1,500 businesses have moved their official headquarters out of Catalonia to ensure they could continue operating under European Union laws if Catalonia secedes.