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article imageSeparatists deal blow to Madrid as Catalan divide widens

By Marianne Barriaux with Serene Assir in Madrid and Marine Laouchez in Brussels (AFP)     Dec 22, 2017 in World

With their leaders in exile or jail, Catalan separatists scrambled Friday to reap the benefits of defeating Spain's central government in a divisive regional election.

Madrid had called Thursday's poll after secessionists declared independence on October 27, in Spain's worst political crisis since democracy was reinstated following dictator Francisco Franco's death in 1975.

The vote had been anticipated as a potential moment of truth on Catalonia's independence question, a hugely divisive issue for the wealthy northeast region, that has rattled a Europe already shaken by Brexit.

But there was a lingering feeling Friday that it had raised new questions -- such as how the separatists planned to govern, and whether the upheaval of the past weeks was now simply on hold.

What was clear was that the move to call snap polls appeared to backfire against Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Ousted regional president Carles Puigdemont picked up where he had left off in the tug-of-war with his nemesis, calling on Rajoy to hold talks in Brussels, where he has sought self-imposed exile, or anywhere else in Europe -- barring Spain, where he faces arrest.

He also called on the European Union, which has so far sided with Rajoy, to hear out the independence camp.

"I only demand to the European Commission or other European institutions, to listen, to listen to the Catalan people, not only the Spanish state," he told reporters in Brussels.

Puigdemont's statement was in line with his strategy throughout the crisis, positioning himself as an equal to the Spanish prime minister and seeking recognition from the international community.

- 'Lengthy and contentious' -

But the appeal fell, once again, on deaf ears.

Rajoy rejected the call to meet Puigdemont, as he warned the new Catalan government should fully respect the law.

The European Commission declined to comment.

Puigdemont said the Spanish government was 'defeated' in the Catalan regional vote
Puigdemont said the Spanish government was 'defeated' in the Catalan regional vote

Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia list secured the best result of the three separatist groupings.

How the independence camp intends to rule remains a mystery, however.

Puigdemont faces charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of funds in Spain.

Other independence leaders, including Puigdemont's former deputy Oriol Junqueras, are behind bars pending trial.

And a Spanish judge on Friday expanded a probe into the secessionist bid to include another six independence leaders, including former regional president Artur Mas, in a written ruling seen by AFP.

To govern together, the three separatist lists must reach an agreement after running on separate tickets with key candidates making acrimonious accusations against each other.

"A brutal confrontation took place, a fight to the death, within the separatist camp," Oriol Bartomeus of Barcelona Autonomous University told AFP.

The separatists will likely manage to clinch a deal and avoid having to hold yet another poll, ruling together with their 70-seat majority in parliament -- two less than their previous tally.

"A pro-independence minority government is likely to form comprising all three pro-separatist parties," said Federico Santi, a researcher with the Eurasia Group consultancy.

"The process will be lengthy and contentious given the self-exiled and imprisoned deputies."

- Society 'polarised' -

Separatist leaders said the vote had helped legitimise their cause, but analysts predicted a softening around the edges of the independence bid.

The Catalan business elite, some of whose members have close links with Puigdemont's party, "know that they have to give a fresh boost to tourism and the economy", sociologist Narciso Michavila told AFP.

Sites such as Barcelona's Sagrada Familia basilica make Catalonia a major tourist destination
Sites such as Barcelona's Sagrada Familia basilica make Catalonia a major tourist destination

At stake in the crisis is the economy of a region that has seen its tourism sector suffer and more than 3,100 companies -- including the largest banks, utilities and insurers -- move their legal headquarters out of Catalonia.

Ratings agency Moody's described the secessionists' win as "credit negative" for both Catalonia and Spain.

"Continued uncertainty will lead to a further deterioration of the business environment," it said in a statement.

On Friday, the Spanish Ibex 35 stock market closed down 1.19 percent, with banks among the biggest losers. Catalonia's biggest bank, CaixaBank, was down 3.6 percent.

Analysts said the social divide over independence was unlikely to disappear.

"We're now in a more polarised society that is at loggerheads," Bartomeus said. "The possibility of agreeing on a solution is more remote now than a year ago."

Anti-independence party Ciudadanos under its candidate Ines Arrimadas won the biggest vote share of ...
Anti-independence party Ciudadanos under its candidate Ines Arrimadas won the biggest vote share of any single party, though her various rival separatist groups won a majority between them
Pau Barrena, AFP

The anti-secessionist centrist party Ciudadanos won the biggest individual result with 37 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament.

Ciudadanos's candidate Ines Arrimadas saw the glass half-full.

She celebrated the result, which she said shows Spain and the world "that here in Catalonia there has never been a secessionist majority", she said.

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