People

Priorities of Catalan leader Puigdemont: Independence and independence

Now known as the Scourge of Madrid, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is determined to break away from Spain and lead the region to independence. Even as a young journalist in the 1980s, he passionately defended Catalonia's culture, history and lan
Now known as the Scourge of Madrid, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is determined to break away from Spain and lead the region to independence. Even as a young journalist in the 1980s, he passionately defended Catalonia's culture, history and language, convinced that it could never fit within Spain.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In less than two years, Mr Carles Puigdemont Casamajo has gone from being known simply as the President of the restive Catalonia region to "the man who wants to break up Spain", as the BBC calls him, and "the scourge of Madrid", in the words of Scotland's The Herald.

Political science professor Manuel Arias Maldonado at the University of Malaga put it even more bluntly, telling the BBC: "He may be Spain's most dangerous man, as he seems to be heading towards a unilateral declaration of independence."

Indeed, in defiance of Spain's laws and Constitution, Mr Puigdemont (pronounced POOTCH-da-mon) has wound up in the driver's seat of - as described by the BBC last Thursday - "what may well be a doomed journey" by the autonomous community on Spain's north-eastern edge to secede.

Following the controversial Oct 1 independence referendum that the national government in Madrid tried to stop by force, leaving nearly 900 people and police officers injured, Mr Puigdemont condemned "police brutality that will shame the Spanish state for ever".

Those who did manage to cast ballots apparently voted 90 per cent in favour of independence. Mr Puigdemont had initially vowed to declare Catalonia's independence today, but appeared to have put that on hold after Spain apologised last Friday for the violent crackdown on the referendum.

However, that is unlikely to sway his determination.

If anything, the 54-year-old Mr Puigdemont's passion for all things Catalan has only intensified since his youth. He was born to a pastry-making family in the tiny town of Amer in Girona province, where he and other children of the time grew up speaking the region's tongue at home - and where Britain's Beatles appear to have had a lasting influence on his hairstyle.

He studied the Catalan language at the University of Girona and later became a journalist, working his way up to be editor-in-chief of the extremely pro-independence newspaper El Punt Avui.

Its current director, Mr Xevi Xirgo, worked side by side with the young Puigdemont in the late 1980s and said that, even back then, he had pushed for more space for any news item, however innocuous, related to self-determination.

"He made the diagnosis that Catalonia couldn't fit within Spain much earlier than most other Catalans did," Mr Xirgo told The New York Times. "He's always defended anything to do with Catalonia's culture, history and language."

Fluent in not just Catalan and Spanish but also English and Romanian, Mr Puigdemont helped launch the English-language Catalonia Today and led the Catalan News Agency, but began moving overtly from journalism into politics after serving as director of the Girona Cultural Centre from 2002 to 2004.

Most stories about him focus almost exclusively on his seemingly total immersion in politics, although he has been married since 2000 to a fellow journalist, Ms Marcela Topor, from Romania. The couple have two children.

The Herald reported that his private interests include playing rock on his guitar and cheering on the Barcelona football club.

By 2011, he had been elected mayor of Girona, and said of his fellow Catalans: "This is the most important moment in our history - this is a very important moment for us. Our relationship with Spain is at an end. Enough is enough."

In January last year, he was personally chosen by Mr Artur Mas to succeed him, thus becoming the 130th president of Catalonia.

Yet, The Herald reported that Mr Puigdemont has one sole interest, whether or not it lands him behind bars in Madrid, and once that has been initiated, he would step aside for a successor of his own.

"Puigdemont is not seeking power - he took this job with a single idea in mind, to lead Catalonia to independence," said Mr Jose Antich, who is director of the Catalan online newspaper El Nacional.

"His top priorities are independence, independence and independence," Mr Antich told The New York Times. "It's not about also improving education or creating a better government."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'His priorities: Independence and independence'. Print Edition | Subscribe