Catalan separatists seek to reelect their leader

Carles Puigdemont | Jasper Juinen  Getty Images

MADRID-Catalonia's two main separatist parties have agreed to support the re-election of ousted leader Carles Puigdemont as president, in a sign that pro-independence groups are eager to ratchet up the tension with Spain's central government. The former Premier fled to Belgium following a referendum, which Spain considered illegal.

In a Catalan election December 21, the three main separatist parties won 70 of the 135 seats in the regional Parliament, with 47.5 percent of the vote - nearly identical to the result in 2015.

Both parties have confirmed the deal but confusion remains about how the president will read his legally required installation speech to the Catalan Parliament on Wednesday without returning to Catalonia, where he is wanted by Spanish authorities.

But this was short-lived as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy imposed direct rule on the semi-autonomous region, sacked its government, dissolved its parliament and called snap elections.

Separatist parties have an absolute majority of 70 seats out of 135, but eight of their elected officials are either in self-imposed exile in Belgium or in jail in Spain.

A spokesman with Puigdemont's Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) ticket said that the separatist politician secured the backing of the left-republican ERC party Tuesday evening in Brussels. Puigdemont became the independence movement's leader but is now a fugitive in Belgium. He is likely to be arrested if he returns to Spain, where he faces charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.

Pro-independence parties achieved a slim majority of seats but they failed to get over 50% of the popular vote, bringing no resolution to months of a increasingly bitter impasse.

The Catalan assembly's regulations are ambiguous about that possibility, but the anti-independence opposition says that a president can't govern from afar. On Friday, judges from the Spanish Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Esquerra leader, Oriol Junqueras, who has been in jail in Madrid since early November, pending his trial on corruption and sedition charges.

"Madrid must be made to understand that what is needed is dialogue, negotiation and agreement on the future relationship we Catalans want to have with Spain - one based on respect, recognition, cooperation and equality", Puigdemont wrote.

While the anti-secession Ciutadans (Citizens) collected the most votes of any single party, the prime minister's hope that the separatists would suffer a stinging rebuke at the polls went unfulfilled.

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