Puigdemont or plan B? Catalan separatists divided

BARCELONA: Catalonia's separatist parties have to decide in the coming days whether to set their differences aside and back ousted, exiled leader Carles Puigdemont or seek an alternative.

Unlike other major independence movements in Scotland and Quebec, concentrated in one party, three different groupings make up Catalonia's separatist camp, united in their will to break with Spain but often at odds with each other.

These quarrels burst into the open on Tuesday, when the Catalan parliament's speaker Roger Torrent, a separatist, postponed a vote meant to reinstate ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont.

Alternative candidates are now emerging in the press, even if Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia grouping insists he must make a comeback from self-exile in Belgium after winning big in December elections.

Different strategies

Torrent said he had delayed the crunch parliamentary session to ensure it later went ahead in an “effective” manner after the Constitutional Court imposed restrictions to try and stop the reappointment of Puigdemont, who is wanted for his role in Catalonia's independence drive.

But what really came to light were divergences between the three separatist groupings — Together for Catalonia, Torrent's Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the smaller far-left CUP party.

They are torn over how to go forward after the failure of a unilateral declaration of independence in October, which saw Madrid sack the Catalan government, dissolve its parliament and call snap elections.

ERC wants to calm things down, get an effective regional government in place and try and increase the separatist camp's support base, which is still under 50 percent of Catalans.

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Together for Catalonia, though, insist Puigdemont lead the region again after the election results, which saw his grouping come first out of the three separatist parties.

That, however, would lead to yet another showdown with Madrid.

The CUP, meanwhile, wants to kick off civil disobedience.

“The reality is that Esquerra doesn't want to reappoint president Puigdemont and they're going to drag out the situation and look for excuses,” says a high-ranking member of Together for Catalonia, who refuses to be named.

“But they don't dare say so in public.”

The divisions have been used by the opposition, which has asked the separatist camp to propose another candidate.

“The independence movement is broken in two,” Puigdemont's rival Ines Arrimadas, of the anti-independence Ciudadanos party, said Tuesday.

The restitution of Puigdemont is important for many independence supporters unhappy over Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's sacking of him and his cabinet, and the imposition of direct rule on the semi-autonomous region.

On Tuesday, several thousand people protested in Barcelona wearing masks of Puigdemont's face, unhappy with the delay of the parliamentary vote to appoint him.

'Symbolic' presidency?

But his reappointment is hugely problematic, as any return to Spain will see him arrested.

High-ranking members of ERC have started to hint that Puigdemont should step down, and the separatist leader's resolve, according to private phone messages of his caught on camera, appears to be floundering.

His former vice president Oriol Junqueras, who is currently in jail, suggested in an interview he could be a “symbolic” president from his home in Belgium, with a fully-functioning executive in Barcelona.

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Alternative names have started to emerge in the press, such as Elsa Artadi, Puigdemont's campaign manager during the elections, or Eduard Pujol, a former journalist who is close to the separatist leader.

For the moment, though, Together for Catalonia is against any alternative candidate, even if that means political blockage and possibly new elections.

And divisions may heal — at least superficially.

“This won't be the last time we hear that the political movement is dead. But not only is it not dead, it will continue to grow,” warned Torrent. — AFP