Ousted Catalan Leader Accepts New Election

BRUSSELS/ MADRID (Reuters) —
Sacked Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont departs after a news conference at the Press Club Brussels Europe in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday. (Reuters/Yves Herman)

Catalonia’s ousted leader Carles Puigdemont on Tuesday accepted the snap election called by Spain’s central government when it took control of the region to block its push for independence.

Puigdemont, speaking at a news conference in Brussels, also said he was not seeking asylum in Belgium after Spain’s state prosecutor recommended charges for rebellion and sedition be brought against him. He would return to Catalonia when given “guarantees” by the Spanish government, he said.

Puigdemont’s announcement that he would accept the regional election on Dec. 21 signalled that the Madrid government had for now at least gained the upper hand in the protracted struggle over Catalonia, a wealthy northeastern region that already had considerable autonomy.

Resistance to Madrid’s imposition of direct control on Catalonia failed to materialise at the start of the week and the secessionist leadership is in disarray.

Spain’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday blocked the unilateral declaration of independence made by the regional parliament on Friday – a largely symbolic move that gained no traction and led to the assembly’s dismissal by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy less than an hour after it was made.

“I ask the Catalan people to prepare for a long road. Democracy will be the foundation of our victory,” Puigdemont said in Brussels, where he showed up after dropping out of sight over the weekend.

The Spanish government has said Puigdemont was welcome to take his chances and stand in the election, called by Rajoy as a way to resolve the stand-off.

Rajoy, who has taken an uncompromising stance throughout the battle of wills over Catalonia, is gambling on anti-independence parties taking power in the regional parliament and putting the brakes on the independence drive. Puigdemont will hope a strong showing for the independence camp will reboot the secessionists after a tumultuous several weeks.

Although Puigdemont did not say when he would return to Spain and denied he was fleeing from justice, he could be called to testify before the court on the rebellion and sedition charges as soon as the end of the week.

The Supreme Court also began processing rebellion charges against Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell and senior leaders on Tuesday.

The political crisis, Spain’s gravest since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, was triggered by an unofficial independence referendum held in Catalonia on Oct. 1.

Though it was declared illegal by Spanish courts and less than half Catalonia’s eligible voters took part, the pro-secessionist regional government said the vote gave it a mandate for independence.

European nations including Britain, Germany and France have backed Rajoy and rejected an independent Catalan state, although some have called for dialogue between the opposing sides.

Puigdemont, Vice President Oriol Junqueras and other Catalan leaders had said previously they would not accept their dismissal. But their respective parties, PdeCat and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, said on Monday they would take part in the election, a tacit acceptance of direct rule from Madrid.

The struggle has divided Catalonia itself and caused deep resentment across the rest of Spain, although separatist sentiment persists in the Basque Country and some other areas.

Despite his dash to the European Union’s power center, Puigdemont’s hopes of engaging the bloc in his cause seem dim. Member states lined up after Friday’s independence declaration to assert their support for Madrid. EU institutions in Brussels say they will deal only with Madrid and that the dispute remains an internal matter.

“Our position remains unchanged,” EU Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said in Brussels on Tuesday.

 

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