Catalonia's Puigdemont says pro-independence party close to taking back control of region


  • World
  • Tuesday, 16 Apr 2024

Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont and his wife Marcela Topor attend an event to announce his candidature with Junts Per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) party for Catalonia's May 12 election, in Elne, France March 21, 2024. REUTERS/Albert Gea/File Photo

PERPIGNAN, France (Reuters) - Catalonia's former president Carles Puigdemont, who has been living in self-exile since a failed independence bid seven years ago, believes his party is "neck and neck" with Spain's ruling Socialists to win control of the region in an election in May.

Puigdemont said that if it failed to do so, he may reconsider his party's critical support for the national government.

Puigdemont fled to Belgium in 2017 after his attempt to secure Catalonia's independence collapsed, with Spain's then conservative government sending police to quash a referendum that courts had annulled and prosecuting its leaders for sedition and misuse of public funds.

Now, with an amnesty bill due to exonerate him and hundreds of others, he is running for his hardline Junts party in the regional election from over the border in France. If he succeeds, he plans to return to take up his position.

He said that despite early April polls showing the Socialists leading in Catalonia ahead of the May 12 vote, his party's internal polls show the race narrowed after he threw his hat in the ring.

"A month ago, it was a pipe dream - the polls had us in distant third place," he told Reuters in an interview. "Now we are neck-and-neck with the Socialists. There is a serious chance for my party to win."

That would breathe new life into the dormant independence movement and strengthen his hand to push Madrid for more concessions including another referendum on independence, he said. "If we have more strength, our goals are closer."

A poll in March showed most Catalans still favour a referendum though not independence.

'DIRTY TRICKS'

Following inconclusive national elections last year, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had to go cap in hand to regional parties including Junts to prop up his minority government.

In return, Puigdemont extracted the promise of an amnesty, which has enraged Spain's conservative opposition and a large part of its populace.

Saying that the continuity of Spain's national government "depends to a large part on our votes", Puigdemont warned Sanchez against risking Junts' support by playing "dirty tricks" to win control of the Catalan government such as teaming up with the main opposition centre-right People's Party when there might be a viable separatist alternative to govern.

"That would be an untenable contradiction that would make the relationship untenable," he said.

The Socialists have downplayed Puigdemont's candidacy, saying Catalans want to turn the page.

Polls in early April put the Socialists on 39 seats to Junts' 31, with the more moderate separatist party Esquerra Republicana (ERC) that presently runs the region on 29, and the PP on 13.

Parties must secure 68 seats to win an absolute majority. Junts would likely need to team up with other pro-independence parties including the ERC, with whom it has a fractious relationship, to govern.

Puigdemont conceded it would take time to revive the independence movement, with the parties espousing it divided and diminished civic enthusiasm.

"Repression has done a lot of damage," he said. "We need to reconnect with all these people".

PAIN OF EXILE

Puigdemont met Reuters in a co-working office on the outskirts of the French city of Perpignan – less than an hour's drive from his home in Spain.

He will campaign from there while his arrest warrant remains in force but has vowed to return for the swearing-in of the new Catalan president regardless of the outcome.

The amnesty is expected to come into force in late May or June, but its application will depend on judges.

The 61-year-old former journalist said he accepted the risk of arrest if his amnesty has not been approved before the investiture.

He lamented the divisions the amnesty law has caused in Spain and the vitriol directed towards him which he said included death threats and "fabricated" accusations he sought Russia's support for the 2017 independence bid.

He appealed to Spaniards to open their minds to Catalonian independence, comparing its champions to those who fought for gay rights, colonial independence or religious freedoms.

"The unity of Spain is not a sacred thing, it is a creation of men," he said. "Despite losing colonies, Spain continues to exist today and will exist the day Catalonia becomes independent".

Returning to Spain would be the fulfilment of a personal and political yearning, he said.

"(In exile) I couldn't even put flowers on my father's grave," he said. "To enter my house, be able to be with my family under normal conditions, see Girona football club play, go shopping at the market."

"It was not easy to get the amnesty law in Spain but we have done it and it ends a stage of unnecessary pain in exile."

(Reporting by Joan Faus, additional reporting by Aislinn Laing, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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