Fugitive Catalan chief Puigdemont pledges he will return to Spain if he can be restored to power

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of the Spanish region of Catalonia who fled the country after a failed secession attempt six years ago, said Thursday that he will return to Spain if he has a viable chance to be restored as regional president following upcoming elections.

Puigdemont, 61, ran to Belgium after leading a 2017 breakaway bid that quickly collapsed and is still a wanted man in Spain. A contentious amnesty bill, crafted by Spain’s left-wing government to clear him and hundreds of other supporters of Catalan independence, is slowly making its way through the national Parliament.

“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, France, near the Spanish border, when he announced his candidacy. “The countdown until my return begins today.”

It appears that Puigdemont will campaign from abroad for his party in the May 12 regional ballot, that was called by Catalan’s regional president Pere Aragonès, a political rival of Puigdemont inside the separatist camp, after he failed to pass a regional budget last week.

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

He appeared to be fading in relevance until an inconclusive national election in Spain in July, which left his Junts and Aragonès' party 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 Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to form a new government.

The amnesty has received initial approval from the lower house of Spain’s Parliament, 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 conservatives oppose the amnesty and have organized several protests against it.

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 a shadowy Internet-based group called Tsunami Democratic that organized protests in Barcelona and other parts of Catalonia that turned violent in 2019.

“I believe Mr. Puigdemont is in a very sticky situation,” Mario Pereira, professor of law at the University of Navarra, told The Associated Press.

“The checkmate against him is the case against the Tsunami Democratic,” he said. Because it is a terrorism probe and Puigdemont has a record as a flight risk, Pereira said the politician could be placed in pre-trial custody, perhaps for months, if he comes back to Spain.

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

He successfully campaigned for Junts from Belgium in an election in 2017 weeks after fleeing, helping a member of his party then be named regional president. But after a 2021 ballot, Republic Left of Catalonia beat out Junts and took power, and Junts performed poorly in the July national elections.

Polls show Junts trailing both Sánchez’s Socialist Party and Aragonès’ Republic Left of Catalonia, but political watchers expect Puigdemont to draw some votes from Republic Left of Catalonia to Junts – and perhaps also boost the vote for the Socialists and conservatives among Catalans who fear his return to power. Puigdemont maintains his goal of carving out a new state in northeast Spain.

“Junts still appeals to its electorate thanks to his (Puigdemont's) charismatic pull," Lluís Orriols, a political science professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University, told the AP. “Carles Puigdemont can still cash in on his epic status as the leader who went in exile.”

The priorities of Catalans have also changed. 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 against independence while 42% are for it. When Puigdemont left in 2017, it was 49% in favor of independence and 43% against.