29th May 2024
Carles Puigdemont
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Puigdemont says he will return to Spain if he can be elected as Catalan president

Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president who fled the country after an unsuccessful bid for independence six years ago, stated on Thursday that he would consider returning to Spain if there is a feasible opportunity for him to reclaim his position as regional president in the upcoming elections.

Puigdemont, 61, moved to Belgium after leading a 2017 breakaway bid that swiftly collapsed, leaving him still wanted by Spanish authorities. A controversial amnesty bill, put together by Spain’s left-leaning coalition government to exonerate him and hundreds of other supporters of Catalan independence, is slowly making its way through the national Parliament. ALSO READ: Controversial Amnesty Law passed in Congress, will now proceed to Senate.

‘I will run in the next elections for the Catalan Parliament … now that I have the chance to restore my presidency,’ Puigdemont said at a rally in Elna, southern France, when he announced his candidacy as the head of the pro-independence Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) party. ‘The countdown until my return begins today.’

It appears that Puigdemont will campaign from abroad for his party in the 12 May Catalan elections, that was called by Catalonia’s regional president Pere Aragonès of the Esquerra Republicana (ERC) party, a political rival of Puigdemont inside the pro-independence camp, after he failed to pass a regional budget last week. ALSO READ: Catalan president dissolves parliament and calls for early election on 12 May.

It is still unclear, however, if Puigdemont will be able to avoid legal trouble if he returns – and he would need to physically be present in Barcelona to be able to become the regional president. Puigdemont admitted that the risk would still exist that, in his words, a ‘judge could rebel’ and try to bring him before a court even if the amnesty is in effect.

Puigdemont’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, recently said that his client was ready to be arrested to attend the investiture debate in the Catalan parliament, if the amnesty law was in effect by then.

Puigdemont has continued his political career as a self-styled political exile from Waterloo in Belgium. He won a European Parliament seat in 2019 and maintained the leadership of his JxCat party while cultivating an almost cult-like status as the figurehead of the independence movement in exile.

He made it clear on Thursday that he would be stepping away from the European Parliament elections, scheduled for 9 June, after holding his MEP seat since 2019. 

He appeared to be fading in relevance until an inconclusive national election in Spain in July 2023, which left his JxCat and ERC holding the keys to power. They were able to secure an amnesty for hundreds of Catalan separatists in legal trouble in exchange for allowing Spanish socialist (PSOE) Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to form a new government. ALSO READ: The PSOE and Junts sign a pact that will guarantee investiture of Pedro Sánchez.

The amnesty law – termed the ‘Organic Amnesty Law for the Institutional, Political and Social Normalisation in Catalonia’ – has received initial approval from the lower house of Spain’s Parliament, the Spanish Congress, but it will likely be rejected by the Senate and not finally pushed into law by the lower house until mid- to late May. Spain’s right-wing and far-right opposition parties strongly oppose the amnesty and have organised many protests against it. ALSO READ: Thousands protest in central Madrid over government’s Catalan amnesty bill.

An arrest warrant has been issued for Puigdemont on charges of the misuse of public funds during the 2017 secession attempt. And in recent months another investigative judge has opened a probe examining the possibility that Puigdemont was the leader of an underground group called Tsunami Democràtic that organised protests in Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia that turned violent in 2019. ALSO READ: Spanish Supreme Court officially opens ‘terrorism’ investigation of Carles Puigdemont.

Puigdemont also has his work cut out to secure the backing of a majority of Catalan MPs in forming a new regional government in Barcelona.

He successfully campaigned for JxCat from Belgium in an election in 2017, just weeks after fleeing, helping a member of his party then be named regional president. But after a 2021 ballot, the ERC ousted JxCat and took power, and JxCat performed poorly in the July 2023 national elections.

Polls show JxCat trailing both Sánchez’s socialist party in Catalonia, the PSC – led by former Spanish health minister Salvador Illa – and Aragonès’ ERC, but political watchers expect Puigdemont to draw some votes from the ERC – and perhaps also boost the vote for the PSC and right-wing parties among Catalans who fear his return to power. Puigdemont maintains his goal of carving out a new state in northeast Spain.

It also appears that the priorities of Catalans have changed since 2017. A record drought is their number one concern, according to the most recent survey by Catalonia’s public opinion office. The survey also said 51% of Catalans are now against independence while 42% are for it. When Puigdemont left in 2017, it was 49% in favour of independence and 43% against.

Click here for all our reports related to Catalan independence.

ALSO READ: Judges extend probes into Puigdemont’s alleged ‘Kremlin ties’ and ‘Tsunami terrorism’.

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