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Spain's election candidates clash over Catalonia in TV debate

MADRID, Nov 4 (Reuters) - The main candidates to become Spain's next prime minister clashed on Monday over how to handle Catalonia's independence drive, in a tense TV debate ahead of a repeat election that opinion polls show could be as inconclusive as the one in April.

Opinion polls suggest a third of voters are still unsure who they will vote for on Sunday, meaning the debate could be decisive. At this stage, polls point to a stalemate, with no party or bloc of parties having a majority.

Catalonia's regional capital, Barcelona, has been rocked by weeks of sometimes violent protests since nine separatist leaders were sentenced to jail in mid-October for their role in a failed independence bid.

"You're not implementing the law (in Catalonia) because you depend on the votes of the separatists, because you hope to govern with them," the leader of the conservative People's Party (PP), Pablo Casado, told acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Sanchez, a Socialist, is leading in opinion polls but has lost support, while right-wing parties have grown more popular since last month's rallies in Catalonia saw some protesters wreak havoc and throw Molotov cocktails at police.

Right-wing parties are now competing on which would take a harder line on the restive region, hoping to attract more votes on Sunday.

"There's a permanent coup d'etat in Catalonia," said the leader of the far-right Vox party, Santiago Abascal, saying PP and the Socialists, who have dominated Spanish politics for decades, were both to blame.

Vox won its first parliamentary seats in April and opinion polls show that, boosted by anger over Catalonia protests, it can now hope to win more than 40 seats, up from 24 in the previous ballot.

Sanchez responded by saying his government had tackled the protests with a firm and proportional response. He added that, if elected prime minister, he would amend the country's laws to make clear that organising an illegal independence referendum, like Catalonia's regional leaders did in 2017, is a crime. (Reporting by Belen Carreno and Elena Rodriguez; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Peter Cooney)