There is no end in sight to Spain’s constitutional impasse. And the hugely influential figure of Carles Puigdemont remains in self-imposed exile in Belgium. How should we regard the leader of the Catalan independence movement? And can he still influence what’s happening in his homeland having withdrawn his bid to be reinstated as Catalan president? Max Graham considers the issues. 


In a striking development on the 1 March, Carles Puigdemont renounced his candidacy for the presidency of the Catalan government. In a defiant broadcast, given in both Catalan and English, the deposed president said that those fighting for Catalan independence were “expanding the battlefield”. But this latest move merely amounts to digging longer trenches and moves the situation no further from its current stalemate. So what brought the Catalan leader to this moment?

On 30 October 2017, Carles Puigdemont and five Catalan counsellors crossed the Spanish border into France. From there they travelled to Belgium, a country which won independence from its larger neighbour almost two centuries ago, but which has been riven by nationalist tensions since. It is no coincidence that Puigdemont fled to Brussels, the capital of Europe and home to his staunchest allies, the Flemish nationalists. They may have welcomed him as a hero but others in Belgium regard him – at best – as a nuisance. The deposed Catalan president divides opinion in his homeland too. To some Catalans, he is father of the nation; to others, he is a fugitive from justice.

Puigdemont has been the leader of the nationalist electoral alliance Junts pel Sí, and then of the right-of-centre party Junts Per Catalunya. He has also been a figurehead for the entire pro-independence movement since Artur Mas’ resignation in January 2016. Mas was president of the Generalitat – the Catalan government – from 2010-2015. He led the nationalist side to victory in two Catalan elections, but also in an informal consultative referendum on independence in November 2014. He was subsequently disqualified from holding electoral office for two years by the Supreme Court of Justice of Catalonia for disobeying the Constitutional Court in holding the referendum.


Artur Mas and Carles Puigdemont in 2011. Image: Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya [CC BY 2.0]

Carles Puigdemont took up his mantle, leading a coalition of secessionist parties through el procés, and ‘the law of disconnection’ of Catalonia from the rest of Spain. This was to entail the creation and development of independent Catalan institutions as a means of crafting a more coherent, autonomous, Catalan identity. These were to include, among other things, separate tax, social security and postal agencies, as well as installing the president of the Generalitat as head of state in place of the Spanish monarch, thus cementing Catalonia’s status as a republic.

This ‘process’ mostly involved the parliament passing a series of decrees; however, over six million euros from the autonomous Catalan budget was also set aside to fund the contracting of public and private agencies to ‘plan, design, construct and operationalise state structures’ which would supplant their Spanish equivalents.

Puigdemont’s biggest moment in the spotlight to date came in October 2017. In the face of political and judicial opposition within and outwith Catalonia, but spurred on by the full-throated enthusiasm of the Catalan independence movement, he pressed ahead with a referendum on Catalan independence from Spain. Whilst the event was legislated formally by the Catalan parliament, it was ruled illegal by the Spanish Supreme Court, as it contravened Spain’s constitution. It was also regarded as illegitimate in the eyes of the international community.

Referendum day itself made international news, in no small part because it was marred by violent scenes as the Guardia Civil, taking their orders from the central Spanish government, sought to disrupt voters going to the polls and forcibly remove those who were manning polling stations.

Following the vote, Spanish Attorney General José Manuel Maza charged Puigdemont, and other leaders in the nationalist movement, with sedition and rebellion (Maza died unexpectedly less than a month later while at a conference in Buenos Aires). These charges – which do not exist in many European countries – provoked Puigdemont’s flight to Belgium. The Spanish government then applied Article 155 of the constitution for the first time in its history, suspending Catalonia’s autonomous government.


Despite being in exile in Brussels, Puigdemont conducted a remarkably successful election campaign, largely through adept use of social media and video links.

On 27 October, less than a week after the application of Article 155, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called snap elections aimed at “restoring legality and self-government to Catalonia as soon as possible”, in the hope of removing the nationalists’ parliamentary majority. Despite being in exile in Brussels, Puigdemont conducted a remarkably successful election campaign, largely through adept use of social media and video links. After the votes were counted from the 21 December vote, his Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) formation emerged as the largest nationalist party, taking second place overall.

However, the December election has done very little to clear the political air in Spain. There has been endless wrangling by nationalists over attempts to swear in Puigdemont as president of Catalonia (despite him not being in the country), a position from which he was removed by the application of Article 155.

Predictably, the Spanish government and judiciary have opposed any such crowning, arguing that someone currently avoiding arrest abroad could not conceivably become Catalan president. But questions have also been raised as to how someone who can run as a candidate for parliament can be barred from leading a government in that same parliament. This is an area where legal and political distinctions become blurred. There is little – if any – legal clarity on these issues: the opinions of constitutional lawyers appear to diverge along partisan lines.


This is an area where legal and political distinctions become blurred. There is little – if any – legal clarity on these issues: the opinions of constitutional lawyers appear to diverge along partisan lines.

JxCat had sought to modify the law regulating the presidency of the Generalitat to allow Puigdemont to be sworn in remotely. However, this proposition has been postponed following the unwillingness of the other main nationalist party – and Puigdemont’s erstwhile coalition partners – Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), to support any such measure.

Trying to adjudicate on this mess is not easy. But a few observations might be made. It does seem hypocritical for a party as mired in corruption as Prime Minister Rajoy’s Partido Popular to argue that those with pending criminal charges cannot possibly hold political office. Spanish Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro is currently under investigation for funding and contracting irregularities. Whilst there is no shortage of glass houses among the Spanish political classes, there is equally little compunction in stone-throwing.

Hypocrisy or not, this matter is likely to come down to a legal judgement. If the Spanish Supreme Court Judge Pablo Llarena, who is overseeing the case, brings formal charges against Puigdemont and the five parliamentary deputies who fled with him to Belgium, they will be constitutionally barred from running for office in future elections. They may even be barred from holding their current office as members of parliament, imperilling the nationalist majority in the chamber.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

So what’s next in this intriguing drama? There is a deadline of 6 April for the Catalan parliament to swear in a new president and form a government before new elections are constitutionally mandated. If new elections were to be held, it is unlikely that the Catalan political landscape would change significantly. With the constitutional question so prominent, and with voters now so entrenched in terms of their voting intentions, there would likely be little movement away from where things stand now.

That said, a change of just a few seats could alter the balance of power in the Catalan parliament. The nationalist parties hold a narrow advantage which they are eager to maintain. And while many within Puigdemont’s party have been unwilling to entertain an alternative candidate, there is now an acceptance – most notably from Puigdemont himself – that the cause of Catalan independence is greater than just one man. Forming a government is therefore imperative if they wish to maintain momentum.


Looking forward, it is clear that he is now largely beholden to events and decisions taking place in Barcelona.

And what of Puidgemont’s future? An attempt to swear him in as president on 9 February, remotely through a video link, was aborted at the last minute by the presiding officer Roger Torrent, a member of Puigdemont’s own party. This was a striking development: whilst Torrent afterwards defended his leader as “the only candidate”, it was clear that the party had blinked. This is understandable. The fractious nationalist alliance is eager to swear in a president as soon as possible, with the April deadline looming. But this has to be a decision that won’t backfire: any swearing-in must crown a president who can focus on leading. Can a man in exile assume such a role?

Puigdemont’s decision to step aside may thus prove to be a pivotal moment in this ongoing drama. And for all his popularity within the pro-independence movement, looking forward, it is clear that he is now largely beholden to events and decisions taking place in Barcelona.

Leaked text messages from the fugitive leader in the immediate aftermath of his aborted investiture in February showed that the setback had disillusioned him to any prospect of returning to power, and to the success of the nationalist cause. Yet his aides have reportedly been sounding out possible residences for the deposed president in Brussels. And his announcement of the formation of a ‘Council of the Republic’, based there, suggests he envisages a prominent role for himself going forward. This unofficial council, made up of representatives from all three pro-independence parties, will ‘lead the way towards effective independence’. This sounds very much like the template for a government in exile.


A protest in Barcelona demanding the release of Catalan politicians jailed on charges of rebellion and sedition. A crowd with Catalan flags holds aloft a paper plane with "freedom written on the wings" and a pair of handcuffs with "Spanish" and "democracy" written on each.
A protest in Barcelona demanding the release of Catalan politicians jailed on charges of rebellion and sedition. Image: Daniel García Peris (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Would it matter if Puidgemont sought to lead the Catalan nationalist movement whilst being based elsewhere? Some nationalists think not: they contend that his physical absence from the Catalan political scene does not impede his participation in the political process. Yet even in the information age, government – or even political leadership – by Skype may not be a proposition that would appeal to most Catalans.

It seems inevitable that another figure may be required to fill the sizeable vacuum created by Puigdemont’s distance from his own political frontline. However, in his statement “provisionally” renouncing his candidacy to the presidency, he alluded to his intention to remain in public life: “I will be glad, in due course, to serve the people in whatever capacity they ask me to.”

In the meantime, questions over his legal status continue to hover over everything. While Spanish courts issued a European Arrest Warrant for Puigdemont in November, this was rescinded when it seemed likely that Belgium might rule in his favour. There had been talk of re-activating the warrant, but a request from the Spanish government to do so was rejected by Spain’s Supreme Court. This instance illuminates an important point, one that is often lost in the heated furore over how the Spanish establishment has responded to Catalan secessionism: whilst questions have been asked about the independence of Spain’s judiciary, it is not merely a tool of the Partido Popular as its detractors would claim.


Amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear: if Puigdemont does decide to return to Spain, he will face immediate arrest.

Amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear: if Puigdemont does decide to return to Spain, he will face immediate arrest. Indeed on 22 February, a Spanish comedian, Joaquín Reyes, known for his impersonations, was nearly arrested by police while filming a comedy sketch whilst in-character as Puigdemont. Reality is often funnier than fiction – but the prospect of Puigdemont returning to move freely around Catalonia is not one that the Spanish authorities will countenance.

Mariano Rajoy may well fear some kind of swearing-in ceremony by stealth. It seems clear that Puigdemont’s flight, and his success in ‘internationalising’ the Catalan crisis (although the Spanish authorities also helped with this due to the heavy-handed police actions of 1 October), has not diminished his stature in the eyes of his supporters. Puidgemont’s return to Catalonia would be greeted with jubilation. Such scenes would be a PR disaster for the Spanish government which consistently seeks to diminish Puigdemont as a viable political actor.


Madrid cannot afford for Puigdemont to be endowed with the legitimising power of the office of president.

Most of all, Madrid cannot afford for Puigdemont to be endowed with the legitimising power of the office of president. With his recent renouncement, Madrid has succeeded in that aim – for now. But this latest development is by no means a convenient solution for either side. Nor does it do anything to ease the current impasse. Puigdemont’s chosen replacement faces a legal predicament of his own – he is currently in prison.

Puigdemont remains a very popular figure among the half of Catalonia’s population that seeks independence. It is likely that – for them at least – he will have secured his place in history as the president who proclaimed the Catalan Republic, and brought his nation to the brink of autonomy. To the other half of Catalonia – and most of the rest of Spain – he is a charlatan and a fraud who made undeliverable promises and fractured a society he was duty-bound to lead. Whatever the future holds for him, and the nation he seeks to lead to independence, Puigdemont’s legacy will be a divisive one. It is always thus with historically significant figures.


Max Graham is a graduate of the University of St Andrews and subsequently completed a year of postgraduate study at Emory University in Atlanta. He has interned with the European Union and the Carter Center and now works for the charity Mary’s Meals. He can be found on Twitter at @maxjgraham 


Feature image:  Carles Puigdemont painted portrait. Image: Thierry Ehrmann [CC BY 2.0]