Catalonia's ex-leader Carles Puigdemont just can't win

Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of Spain's restive Catalonia region, appears ready to give up his attempt to ret...

Posted: Jan 31, 2018 12:44 PM
Updated: Jan 31, 2018 12:44 PM

Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of Spain's restive Catalonia region, appears ready to give up his attempt to return to power.

According to text messages caught by a TV camera, Puigdemont conceded that his efforts had failed and accused his own side of giving up on him.

"It's over," Puigdemont is alleged to have told an adviser. Madrid "has won," he wrote in the messages, broadcast by journalist Ana Rosa Quintana on her TV show Wednesday.

After elections last month, Puigdemont was the only candidate nominated to lead Catalonia's new government. The trouble is, he is in self-imposed exile in Belgium, unable to set foot in his own country without being arrested for his part in holding last year's banned referendum on independence from Spain.

On Tuesday, the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent unexpectedly suspended a session in which MPs were expected to confirm Puigdemont as President. Ostensibly, the decision was taken in order to secure guarantees from Madrid that the vote would be respected. The Spanish government has previously said that it will not allow Puigdemont to return to power.

Torrent insisted that Puigdemont still had the support of the pro-independence parties that hold a slim majority in the Catalan parliament. But Puigdemont appeared unconvinced.

"They have sacrificed us, at least me," Puigdemont apparently said in the messages, written in Catalan and sent via the Signal messaging app to his former health minister, Toni Comin.

CNN could not independently verify the messages, aired on Telecinco's Ana Rosa show, but in a tweet addressing the issue Wednesday, Puigdemont appeared to confirm their authenticity, saying he simply had a moment of doubt. He added that he was determined to continue his bid for the presidency.

"I am a human being and there are times when I also have doubts. I am also the President and I will neither shrink nor step back as a matter of respect, thankfulness and compromise with our citizens and the country. We go on!" he wrote.

He also criticized the violation of his privacy.

In his public reaction to the decision of the Catalan parliament to suspend the vote, Puigdemont appeared flustered and defensive. In remarks via teleconference Tuesday, he appeared to have no prior knowledge of the suspension, signaling a major breakdown in the pro-independence alliance.

"We believe that democracy cannot be postponed or suspended," he said, according to Spain's El Pais, adding that his intentions remained "intact."

"There is no other candidate or other possible arithmetic combination," he said, adding Madrid could not dictate who became president.

Puigdemont's spokespeople did not respond to CNN's request for comment.

If Puigdemont loses support from pro-independence MPs, his bid for power would be over.

Madrid-Barcelona standoff

The national government in Madrid has been involved in a protracted game of chicken with the regional administration in Barcelona since Puigdemont's government defied a Constitutional Court ruling and went ahead with a referendum on independence on October 1 last year.

In response, Madrid dissolved the Catalan parliament and called new elections on December 21 in the hope the region would choose a more moderate government. But the vote delivered a return to the status quo and put Madrid and Barcelona back to square one, with a parliament led by separatists.

Catalonia has now been without a president since late October. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly called on parliament to forget Puigdemont and choose a "clean candidate."

The Spanish government has sought Puigdemont's arrest after the Catalan parliament declared unilateral independence in late October. The state prosecutor accuses him of sedition, rebellion and misuse of funds. He could face decades in prison if charged and convicted.

Several others have already been jailed in Madrid, awaiting trial on the same charges. Their supporters consider them political prisoners.

The might of Madrid

Madrid has used every legal tool in the box to keep Puigdemont from office, and it now appears to have the upper hand in the standoff.

The Spanish government has imposed direct rule in Catalonia, taking control of the autonomous region's public institutions. Rajoy recently threatened to extend direct rule should parliament choose Puigdemont as its leader-at-large.

It has also lodged an application to the Constitutional Court to rule that a leader cannot govern from abroad. If the court even accepts this application, the process to vote for a president will be again suspended, prolonging the already lengthy political crisis.

The issue of independence has been deeply divisive in Catalonia and little appears to have shifted in public opinion since the October 1 referendum.

As the region has not been allowed a legal referendum on the issue, the December vote was seen as an informal plebiscite on independence.

An anti-independence party, Citizens, won the largest number of seats, but it did not have near enough allies to form government.

The three pro-independence parties took power in parliament with a slim majority of seats, but they gained less than 50% of the popular vote, suggesting that most Catalans do not necessarily support independence.

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