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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Separatist leader makes final plea for split with Spain

Former Catalonia president Carles Puigdemont vows to return from Brussels if re-elected

Former Catalonian regional President Carles Puigdemont (C, on screen) and former Catalonian regional ministers Clara Ponsati (R, on the screen) and Lluis Puig (L, on the screen) appear from Belgium, via video conference, in the Catalonian pro-independence right party Junts per Catalunya's election campaign closing event in Barcelona, Catalonia, 19 December 2017. EPA/Toni Albir
Former Catalonian regional President Carles Puigdemont (C, on screen) and former Catalonian regional ministers Clara Ponsati (R, on the screen) and Lluis Puig (L, on the screen) appear from Belgium, via video conference, in the Catalonian pro-independence right party Junts per Catalunya's election campaign closing event in Barcelona, Catalonia, 19 December 2017. EPA/Toni Albir

A chair reserved in the name of Carles Puigdemont was placed at the front of his party’s final campaign rally on Tuesday. There was never a realistic chance that Catalonia’s most prominent separatist would turn up to take his place.

On the eve of voting in elections crucial to the future of Catalonia, its former president remains exiled in Brussels, at threat of arrest and a lengthy prison term if he returns home after the Spanish government condemned his October declaration of independence as illegal.

Despite his absence, Mr Puigdemont has remained the central figure in an often feisty election campaign that ends on Thursday with 5.5 million people voting for a new parliament to replace one dissolved by Madrid under emergency powers to prevent the country’s break-up.

Despite the leadership vacuum, his Junts Per Catalunya (Together for Catalunya) could still emerge as the largest party in the regional parliament vote called by the Spanish government and be part of a pro-independence coalition. With many voters still undecided, polls suggest the race is too close to call.

Mr Puigdemont’s public role has been limited to nights like this: appearing live from Brussels on a big screen mounted on the top of a truck, pitching the election as a straight fight between Catalonia and the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy.

Mr Rajoy ordered police to halt the referendum on October 1 and then took control of the semi-autonomous region when its result led to the bid for independence. He sacked Mr Puigdemont who fled to Brussels while other senior separatists were arrested and locked up.

“This time is not about who wins this election, it’s about whether the country wins or Rajoy does,” said Mr Puigdemont in a plea to put aside ideological differences for the sake of the greater goal of Catalan independence.

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He promised to return to Catalonia if re-elected but in what capacity remains open to question following strong campaign showings by the pro-unity Ciudadanos (Citizens) party and rival separatist movement the ERC, the Republican Left. Its leader and former vice president Oriol Junqueras remains in prison.

The several hundred supporters who crammed the small square in the northern part of Barcelona for the Puigdemont rally had little doubt about the role he should play, punctuating his speech with shouts of “president” in defiance of the central government’s takeover of the region.

“I can’t imagine he will not be the president of Catalonia, because he is the president of Catalonia,” said supporter Toni Ferreres, 61, who claimed that the central government was exploiting Spain’s wealthiest region. “We’re the cow, they only want our milk,” he said.

Weekend polling suggested that Mr Puigdemont’s party, the ERC and a third small pro-independence party could fall a couple of seats short of controlling the regional parliament. That result could translate to a hung parliament and weeks of wrangling to form a new regional government.

Some divisions have appeared between the two main pro-independence parties. A senior figure in the ERC signalled a change in tactics after Mr Puigdemont lost the game of brinkmanship with Madrid after his declaration of independence.

Marta Rovira told the Financial Times that the party’s priority was for dialogue with Madrid and turning Spain into a republic as a first step towards ultimate independence, setting the scene for years of argument and deal-making.

Ms Rovira is her party’s choice to become president in a new Catalan administration if Mr Junqueras remains in prison, where he is under investigation by the authorities for giving a radio interview in breach of prison rules.

Despite Mr Puigdemont’s bullish enthusiasm, his own supporters at Tuesday’s rally said they were prepared for the long haul. “Maybe we didn’t achieve the goal now but we started on the way so that maybe in 20-30 years we will be able to go it alone,” said Daniel Martinez, 42, a Barcelona businessman.

Nuria Boget, 52, an administrator, insisted there was no way back, but that a negotiated split with Spain was the only way forward.

“It’s like a marriage. For the moment, we’re married to Spain but they don’t listen to us,” she said. “They will have to listen in a couple of years.”

The scattering of the pro-independence leadership has contributed to rising support for the pro-unity party Ciudadanos whose leader, 36-year-old lawyer Ines Arrimadas, said she would bury the region’s ambitions to secede if she wins the election. “On Thursday, we are going to awaken from this nightmare of the independence push,” she told her own closing rally.

Polls consistently show most Catalans want the right to decide their future but are evenly divided over splitting from Spain.

Many see Catalonia as a separate nation with its own history, language and culture, even though it lost its autonomy to Spain in the 18th century.

A new constitution devolved powers to Catalonia in 1978, but also outlawed independence and gave the central government drastic powers to intercede in the event of a separatist push.

The separatist leadership pressed ahead with its independence bid anyway after earning its highest ever level of support following the 2008-09 economic crisis.

Elsa Artadi, the head of the campaign team who acted as Mr Puigdemont’s warm-up at Tuesday’s rally, said a tactical mistake was made by the Spanish government by forcibly trying to stop the October 1 referendum on independence.

The approach after Thursday was “primarily dialogue” to achieve its goal of independence, she said. “We ask the Spanish government to accept the result. They will not be able to ignore the election that they have organised - and they will have to explain the result.”