Catalan Pariah Returns to Spain With Plans to Retake Power

(Bloomberg) -- Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan separatist who led a failed attempt to break away from Spain, is bidding to make a return as regional president.

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After six and a half years in exile, Puigdemont is heading back to Spain and plans to lead his party in May’s elections for the Catalan regional government. After strong-arming Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez into granting an amnesty for hundreds of Catalan activists, including himself, Puigdemont said Thursday that he had to take the opportunity to try to take back the presidency.

Puigdemont’s return will mark a watershed in Spanish politics and enrage the conservative opposition. He’s been demonized in most of the country since staging an illegal referendum on independence in 2017, but was given a new opportunity when last year’s national election left Sanchez and his Socialists needing a handful of extra seats to clinch a third term in office. A controversial pact allowed Sanchez to stay in power in exchange for the amnesty.

“I can say proudly, six and a half years later, that all attempts to make us give up, humiliate us or surrender, have failed,” a celebratory Puigdemont, 61, said at the press conference in the southern French city of Elna, in front of an audience of collaborators and supporters. “This opportunity must be faced with all the consequences as well as all the commitments.”

Puigdemont also called on other pro-independence parties to join him in a wide nationalist front for the election, to have a better chance at winning. The other main separatist party promptly signaled it wasn’t interested.

Sanchez has said that July’s election result left him needing to make “a virtue of necessity” as he struggled to piece together a majority following a drop in support for his main partner.

But it’s still uncertain whether the 52-year-old Sanchez can consolidate his grip on power after a turbulent few months. Puigdemont’s return to front line politics won’t help.

The amnesty law has stirred up huge tensions in Spain, not just among the opposition and its supporters, but also with judges, business groups and even members of Sanchez’s own party.

But that’s just one of the issues raising the temperatures of Spain’s political class. News reports alleging corruption and tax fraud by some close to both Sanchez and key opposition figures have swirled around the prime minister since he cut a deal with the separatists.

The conservative People’s Party, the largest group in parliament, published a post on an official X account calling Sanchez’s Socialists the party of “prostitutes and corruption.” The Socialists replied by saying that the PP president of Madrid region, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, benefits from the corruption of her partner.

This is a clear strategy by the government of attacking Ayuso to try to divert attention from the amnesty and the facemask scandal, a spokesman for Ayuso said.

The mudslinging started with reports that a government adviser had been involved in profiteering on the sale of face-masks to regional governments during the pandemic, though there is no evidence that any senior officials were involved.

Then a local publication reported that Sanchez’s wife had business deals with an airline only days before it was rescued by the government. After that, a website close to the government reported that prosecutors are investigating tax fraud by Ayuso’s partner — who Ayuso says has done nothing wrong.

Sanchez and his supporters argue that the amnesty will strengthen the Socialists’ position in Catalonia, Spain’s second largest region, giving it a shot at winning the next regional election and rebuilding its position in what was historically a Socialist stronghold — before the push for independence.

The Catalan government’s decision to call a snap ballot a year early — voting is scheduled for May 12 — has disrupted those plans. Polls consistently show the Socialists are on track to be the largest party, but there is no certainty they will be able to govern.

Puigdemont has huge influence over a large part of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia, but not all of it.

His party, the pro-business group Junts, is vying with its left-leaning rival from within the separatist camp, ERC, for second place. While those two parties forged an alliance in 2017 to push through the illegal ballot, their relationship has soured as their leaders have faced jail time or exile and ERC pushed out Junts to take control of the Catalan government.

The big problem for Sanchez is that he needs both of those parties to form a majority in the Spanish parliament in Madrid. The shift and tensions produced by the Catalan election campaign could persuade one of those groups that supporting the Socialist administration no longer serves its interests.

The timing of Puigdemont’s return to Catalonia is another wild card.

The amnesty won’t come into force until late May at the earliest, so he would risk arrest if he attends campaign events during the pre-election period.

In his announcement Thursday, Puigdemont said he will be present when the new regional parliament sits for the first time, by which point his legal indemnity should be in place. A higher-stakes tactic would be to enter Spain before the vote.

That would stir up tensions between the courts and police — who have the power to arrest him — and the prime minister, who realizes that such a move would trigger a political and potentially a constitutional crisis.

One thing however is clear: when Puigdemont does come back, he plans to travel by land across the French border from France, tapping into the memories of another former independence leader who was exiled almost a 100 years ago and returned in 1931 to take part in a short-lived Catalan government.

When he fled Barcelona in 2017, Puigdemont did so in secret to escape the Spanish police. The next time he visits the Catalan capital, it’s a good bet that he will be inviting plenty of attention.

(Adds reaction in 5th paragraph. An earlier version corrected a name spelled incorrectly in this story’s web url.)

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