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4th Dec 2022

Catalan separatists mull 'symbolic' presidency

  • Puigdemont in Barcelona, before he fled to Belgium (Photo: Premsa SantCugat)

Catalan separatists leaders are discussing a plan that would allow exiled Carles Puigdemont to keep influence in the region even if he cannot be elected president of the government.

Puigdemont met a delegation of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party, in Brussels on Sunday, and deputies of his Together for Catalonia (JxCat) party on Monday to discuss the plan.

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He was also due to meet envoys from the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), the third separatist party in parliament.

Under the plan, Puigdemont would be sworn in by the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI), a group of Catalan town councils, to form a "legitimate and symbolic" government in Brussels.

In the meantime, the Catalan parliament in Barcelona would elected a leader of the regional executive, which under the plan separatists refer to as an "operative" presidency.

According to Catalan media, Puigdemont would prefer changing the regional law in order to create a 'council of the republic', which he would chair from Brussels in parallel to the regular Catalan government in Barcelona.

Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium in October to escape charges of sedition, rebellion and embezzlement over an unilateral independence process, is the only candidate for the position.

But the Spanish supreme court said that he could be elected only if he is physically present in the parliament, with an authorisation from judges.

Last week, the speaker of the parliament, Roger Torrent, of the ERC, postponed the vote a few hours before it was due on 30 January.

Make Puigdemont happy

The plan is the solution found by JxCat and ERC to unblock he situation, but "it will be very difficult to implement," said Oriol Bartomeus, a political science professor at Barcelona's Autonomous University.

"The question is how Puigdemont can perform this symbolic presidency," he told EUobserver.

"Will he have regular meeting with the government by Skype? In the end, it will be impossible for him to really control the government in Barcelona," he said.

Torrent officially blamed the Spanish government for preventing the Catalan government electing Puigdemont. But behind the scenes, the two parties have been increasingly at odds, with ERC putting pressure in JxCat to let another candidate step in.

In a text message to a deputy, caught by a TV camera, Puigdemont said that he was "sacrificed" and that his bid was "over".

The symbolic presidency plan is to make Puigdemont "happy", Bartomeus noted.

"It's to avoid an open confrontation inside the separatist bloc and have Puigdemont fade away with time," he said.

'Sounds good'

While JxCat's spokesman Eduard Pujol said that the talks were "going in the right direction", ERC's spokesman Sergi Sabria said the plan "sounds good" to his party.

He said it would "give value to the legitimate government in Brussels, and [would] be compatible with finishing with [article] 155, return Puigdemont and form a government."

Article 155 is the Spanish constitution provision under which the Spanish government dismissed the Catalan government, took over the region's administration and organised elections in December, in reaction to the declaration of independence on 27 October.

The government has said it would stop applying article 155 when the situation is back to normal.

On Monday, the general coordinator of the ruling Popular Party (PP), Fernando Martinez-Maillo, said that the "only valid" government would be one that comes from the parliament and applies the laws.

"There can be no symbolic investiture," he said.

If Puigdemont's presidency is purely symbolic and the elected Catalan government follows the law, "maybe the government will let it go," Bartomeus said, adding that it would also depend on "the PP's electoral needs".

Separatists will have first to find a new candidate to lead the regional government. 

With Puigdemont in Belgium and ERC leader Oriol Junqueras in prison since October, neither party has an obvious candidate to propose.

"We have to go down the list to find somebody who is not charged or about to be charged," Bartomeus pointed out.

"The race is quite open and quite strange," he said.

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