World News

Catalan Separatists Seek to Re-elect Puigdemont

Posted January 10, 2018 11:16 a.m. EST

The main separatist parties of Catalonia have reached a preliminary agreement to re-elect Carles Puigdemont as leader of the restive Spanish region, even as he remains in self-imposed exile in Belgium, the Catalan news media reported Wednesday.

The deal — reached over dinner in Brussels on Tuesday — would allow Puigdemont to deliver his acceptance speech this month either by videoconference from Belgium or by having another lawmaker read it in the Catalan Parliament on his behalf, according to the Catalan radio station Rac1 and other outlets.

In a Catalan election Dec. 21, the three main separatist parties won 70 of the 135 seats in the regional Parliament, with 47.5 percent of the vote — almost identical to the result in 2015.

The result was a setback for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, who had called the election in the hope that voters would deliver a decisive blow to the secessionist movement. But the separatists will still struggle to form a coalition government, in large part because eight of their 70 elected lawmakers are either in jail in Madrid or with Puigdemont in Belgium to avoid prosecution in Spain.

Marta Rovira, a deputy leader of the separatist party Esquerra Republicana, met with Puigdemont on Tuesday evening. On Friday, judges from the Spanish Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Esquerra leader, Oriol Junqueras, who has been in jail in Madrid since early November, pending his trial for corruption and sedition.

The Spanish attorney general wants to prosecute 20 separatists, including Puigdemont, on charges of organizing an unconstitutional referendum on Oct. 1 and then declaring Catalonia’s independence that month.

The Catalan Parliament is set to reconvene next Wednesday, under a timetable set by Rajoy, and is expected to elect a regional leader within two weeks. Puigdemont’s party unexpectedly won the most seats among the main separatist parties in December, even though Puigdemont has not made clear whether he plans to return from Belgium.

Puigdemont has called on Rajoy to meet outside Spain, to negotiate a settlement to their dispute, a proposal the prime minister has rejected. The Spanish leader has also described as “absurd” the idea that Puigdemont could lead Catalonia from abroad.

Far from ending the secessionist conflict, the election has opened another uncertain chapter for Spain. The botched independence declaration prompted Rajoy to use his emergency powers to oust Puigdemont’s government and take direct control over Catalonia from Madrid. Puigdemont has not made clear how he plans to revive his independence drive.

In order to guarantee a separatist majority in a parliamentary vote this month, Junqueras and the other jailed separatists are expected to ask for special permission from Spain’s judiciary to travel to Barcelona for one day to cast their votes. Some of the lawmakers in Belgium could appoint substitutes to take their seats.

The preliminary deal to re-elect Puigdemont was struck just hours after his predecessor, Artur Mas, resigned as leader of his own conservative party. Mas was barred last year from holding public office after Spain’s judiciary ruled that he had organized an illegal vote on Catalan independence in 2014. “This new stage requires new leaders,” Mas told a news conference Tuesday.