Exiled separatist Puigdemont says to run in Catalonia snap poll

Carles Puigdemont fled Spain after spearheading Catalonia's 2017 secession bid (Jean-Christophe MILHET)
Carles Puigdemont fled Spain after spearheading Catalonia's 2017 secession bid (Jean-Christophe MILHET)

Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont said Thursday he would run in Catalonia's snap May election in a move which could bring forward his return to Spain after years of self-imposed exile.

"I have decided to run in the next elections for Catalonia's parliament," he told supporters in Elne, a small town in southern France near the border with Spain.

The high-stakes regional election will take place on May 12.

A European Parliament lawmaker, Puigdemont has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium since fleeing Spain following the botched Catalan independence bid of October 2017 when he was Catalan leader.

"We want to finish the work we began so that Catalonia is recognised among the world's community of nations," the 61-year-old leader of the hardline separatist JxCat party said.

It will be the third time Puigdemont has run as a candidate since fleeing Spain, after previously contesting the regional polls in December 2017 and February 2021.

Last week, current Catalan leader Pere Aragones, who heads the more moderate separatist ERC party, called a snap election in the wealthy northeastern region.

Puigdemont's announcement came a week after Spain's parliament voted through a key amnesty law that aims to draw a line under years of efforts to prosecute those linked to the independence bid.

The bill, which is expected to become law in two months, means Puigdemont will be able to return home.

"A week ago I didn't bank on being here," he said in Elne. "Today, that amnesty that (they said) was impossible is two months away from being approved."

Named Catalan leader in 2016, Puigdemont led the independence bid the following year that sparked Spain's worst political crisis in decades before fleeing to Belgium. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019.

- Separatists divided -

With the Catalan separatist movement in the doldrums, the outcome of Spain's inconclusive July election was a gift for Puigdemont, whose party was cast in the role of kingmaker.

After months of uncertainty, JxCat's seven lawmakers decided to back Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, its votes enabling him to secure a new four-year term in November. In exchange, it demanded the amnesty bill.

Although the bill was voted down in January after JxCat rejected it on grounds it did not go far enough, it passed this month with fresh wording that the party sees as sufficient to avoid prosecution for terrorism or treason.

Just two weeks earlier, Spain's Supreme Court started investigating Puigdemont on "terror" charges over his alleged links to mass protests by a group called Democratic Tsunami.

Even when the bill becomes law, there is no guarantee Puigdemont will not be arrested on return to Spain, his lawyer Gonzalo Boye told Catalonia's RAC1 radio, saying he would "accept the consequences".

Polls suggest the Catalan vote will be tight.

A survey published Thursday by regional polling firm CEO put the Catalan branch of Sanchez's Socialist party in the lead with 25-29 percent, the ruling ERC with 17-20 percent, and JxCat with 15-18 percent.

Following the 2021 election, the two separatist parties ruled Catalonia in coalition but JxCat pulled out in 2022, exacerbating divisions within the movement.

Although Aragones, who will run again as ERC's candidate, said he wanted to see Puigdemont return, he said he thought the JxCat leader's time was over.

"I respect him for what he's achieved in his career but I think that Catalonia needs to look ahead," he told La Vanguardia newspaper on Sunday.

Speaking in Brussels Thursday, Spain's Sanchez said the region would only move forward if it was "united".

"For that, it needs an inclusive political approach, without recriminations, bitterness or grudges, one that is committed to coexistence and Catalonia's progress," he said.