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article imageCrunch time for Puigdemont's Catalan comeback bid

By Diego URDANETA (AFP)     Jan 30, 2018 in Politics

Catalan lawmakers are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a bid by Catalonia's ousted separatist leader Carles Puigdemont to form a new government, setting the stage for a fresh showdown with Spain's central government which removed him from office.

Puigdemont moved to Belgium shortly after Catalonia's parliament declared independence in October and he faces arrest if he returns to Spain for leading the secession bid in the wealthy northwestern region that is home to some 7.5 million people.

But last week the new speaker of the Catalan parliament nominated Puigdemont to lead Catalonia again, with the regional assembly set to begin debating on his candidacy at 3.00 pm (1400 GMT) under tight security.

Puigdemont's supporters have been encouraged to demonstrate outside of the assembly at that time, bearing paper masks with a likeness of his face which could be downloaded off the internet.

The Catalan parliament speaker maintained the session of parliament even though Spain's Constitutional Court ruled on Saturday -- in response to a lawsuit filed by the central government -- that Puigdemont must be present at the assembly to be chosen as the region's chief.

The court also warned that swearing in Puigdemont at a distance, by videoconference as some of his supporters have proposed, would not be valid.

And it ruled Puigdemont must ask a Supreme Court judge leading the investigation into his role in Catalonia's independence push for permission to attend the parliamentary session.

Puigdemont appealed the ruling and the Constitutional Court will begin considering his arguments on Tuesday at 1.00 pm (1200 GMT), just before the investiture debate in the Catalan parliament begins.

- 'Can't be president' -

The parliament debate comes three months after the assembly's failed declaration of independence on October 27, which deeply divided Catalans and triggered Spain's worst political crisis since the country returned to democracy following the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy moved to stop the crisis by imposing direct rule on the semi-autonomous region, sacking its government including Puigdemont, dissolving parliament and calling snap elections.

But in a major setback for the central government, separatist parties once again won a majority of 70 seats in the 135-seat parliament in the December polls.

Catalan separatists argue Puigdemont was given a democratic mandate for the independence declaration...
Catalan separatists argue Puigdemont was given a democratic mandate for the independence declaration during a contested referendum

While separatist parties won less than half the vote, 47.5 percent, they benefited from electoral rules which give greater weight to rural areas, where support for independence is higher.

Separatists argue Puigdemont was given a democratic mandate for the independence declaration during a contested referendum, which the courts and the central government declared illegal, and want to see him reinstated. But Madrid remains fiercely opposed to his return to power.

"A fugitive, a man who tried to unilaterally liquidate national sovereignty, can't be president of anything," Rajoy told Cope radio station on Monday after the court's ruling.

- Pick new candidate? -

Catalan parliamentary speaker Roger Torrent could decide at the last minute to put off the session of parliament to form a new government.

But under Catalonia's electoral law, it must be held at the latest ten days after the assembly opened a new session -- meaning it has to happen by Wednesday.

If Puigdemont is absent, Torrent could risk criminal charges and disobey the court by trying to swear in the former leader again remotely.

He could also open the session of parliament and then announce that a new candidate needed to be picked since it is not possible to go ahead with Puigdemont's investiture from abroad.

A top lawmaker with the separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) party, Joan Tarda, said over the weekend it may be time to "sacrifice" Puigdemont although there is no obvious alternative choice. A stalemate over another candidate could eventually end up in new elections.

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