Catalan Separatist Ambitions Barred by Reality of Criminal Probe

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(Bloomberg) -- After the cheers and celebrations of his surprise election victory, Catalonia’s would-be president, Carles Puigdemont, has to navigate the difficult legacy of October’s illegal drive to break away from Spain.

The three-party separatist bloc successfully defended its narrow majority in Thursday’s election, but the potential prosecutions facing its leaders may still prevent Puigdemont from fulfilling his vow to return to the presidential palace for a second time.

"We are still in the epic narrative phase,’’ Guillem Lopez Casasnovas, a former Bank of Spain board director and external adviser to the government of Artur Mas who was Puigdemont’s predecessor as Catalan president. “At some point we will have to move on to a less glamorous phase."

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy shut down Puigdemont’s plans for a Catalan republic in October, ousting the rebel administration and dissolving the regional parliament in an unprecedented state intervention. But he’s made little progress in healing the divides between Catalans or persuading separatists that they can prosper within Spain.

With a record turnout on Thursday, 48 percent of voters backed pro-independence parties, almost exactly the same number as two years ago. That result offers little prospect of a lasting settlement any time soon.

Rajoy on Friday called for an “open and realistic dialogue, within the framework of the law, with the government that is formed in Catalonia.’’

While Puigdemont demanded protection from the Spanish courts from his self-imposed exile in Brussels, Rajoy refused to even acknowledge the independence movement had won. He said he’s already started talks with Ines Arrimadas, the pro-Spain candidate who heads the biggest single party in the regional assembly. Arrimadas’s party Ciudadanos won 37 seats to Puigdemont’s 34, though the separatist parties together control 70 of the 135 lawmakers.

For analysis of the vote, check out the TOPLive blog

It’s not just a question of parliamentary math.

Puigdemont needs to return to Barcelona to be sworn in as president for a second term, and he’s facing an arrest warrant from Spain’s Supreme Court which is investigating possible rebellion charges against separatist leaders.

“I need to talk to whoever holds the presidency of the Catalan government,” Rajoy said. “For that, he needs to take his seat in parliament, win a vote and be in a position to talk to me.”

Rajoy’s Power

Rajoy is taking a hit from the Catalan conflict too. His party was humiliated on Thursday and he’s had some awkward conversations with European Union leaders to explain the violent crackdown on separatists. Ciudadanos is also emerging as a rival for the votes of those concerned by the threat of a rupture with Catalonia.

But Rajoy is still installed in his government offices in Madrid with a grip on the levers of power and, in the background of the Catalan drama, the Spanish economy is barreling along at 3 percent a year. Puigdemont is stuck 1,000 miles from Barcelona talking to journalists about a republic that still doesn’t exist.

The deposed president told Catalans in the run-up to Thursday’s election that their votes could restore the rebel administration. Campaign director Elsa Artadi said Puigdemont would return to the presidential palace once he had a renewed mandate from the voters.

New Candidate, New Strategy

With voters’ support secured, Puigdemont demanded legal guarantees that Rajoy wasn’t prepared to offer. His advisers are starting to speculate that he could be stuck in Brussels for years and that a substitute candidate might be needed to run the Catalan administration on his behalf.

Whoever the separatists nominate as president will have to heal the divides that opened up as their push for independence unraveled.

Esquerra Republicana, the other mainstream separatist party, refused to repeat the joint platform it formed with Puigdemont’s group in 2015. While Puigdemont fled following the takeover by Madrid, Esquerra leader Oriol Junqueras remained to defend the cause. Junqueras spent the election campaign in jail and his party suffered as a result.

After entering the campaign with a clear lead in polls, Esquerra were overhauled by Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya on polling day. Judges in Madrid will hear a request for Junqueras’s release on Jan. 4.

“Catalan society is very polarized,” Ignacio Jurado, a partner at Madrid-based political consultancy Quantio, said in a phone interview. “Pro-independence parties need to drop the unilateral approach and reconsider their strategy -- without making it appear like a defeat.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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