Catalan separatists face reality check after Puigdemont detained

Protestors holding cardboard masks with the face of former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont during a march in Tarragona, Catalonia, on March 25, 2018.
Protestors holding cardboard masks with the face of former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont during a march in Tarragona, Catalonia, on March 25, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MADRID (BLOOMBERG) - Carles Puigdemont's removal from Catalonia's political scene to a German jail forces the separatist movement to take a decision: keep bickering on the way ahead, or set aside differences and form a regional government.

The former Catalan president's detention in Germany on Sunday (March 25) was hailed by anti-separatist forces as a decisive blow against the push for Catalan independence.

In a boost for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Puigdemont now exits the political stage, at least for now, and is unable to influence events in Barcelona.

Yet, pending Puigdemont's return to Spain, the risk is his detention acts as the catalyst needed to pressure sparring separatist camps into unity three months after regional elections.

"It's time to build a common front to defend individual and collective rights and liberties," Mr Roger Torrent, the speaker of the Catalan parliament, said on Twitter in response to Puigdemont's arrest.

Spain is struggling to move on from the events of late last year (2017) when the force of separatist sentiment in Catalonia ran into the rock of the central government in Madrid's refusal to allow Puigdemont's attempt to split the region from Spain.

Protests on the streets of Barcelona on Sunday were a reminder the wounds remain far from healed.

"At first sight, it all looks such a mess," said Ms Caroline Gray, lecturer at Aston University in Britain who specialises in nationalist movements. "But the fact is that political life goes on and Catalonia still needs a government."

HIGHWAY ARREST

Puigdemont was held by German highway police on Sunday near the Danish border after attending a weekend event in Finland. He has been living in exile in Brussels since October, when Prime Minister Rajoy used emergency powers to sack the Catalan president and disband his government after his attempt to declare a republic, an act in breach of Spain's constitution.

While Madrid went about restoring Spain's constitutional order in Catalonia, judges began a crackdown that culminated in a Supreme Court judge declaring on Friday that Puigdemont and other separatist leaders would face prosecution for rebellion.

It was another blow to the secessionist campaign that has been in limbo since separatist parties emerged with a narrow majority in December's regional elections. With Puigdemont in self-exile and other leaders abroad or in jail, they have so far failed to form a government.

An attempt to elect as president Jordi Turull, the spokesman of Puigdemont's former government, failed last week when the radical separatist party CUP abstained from voting for him. Turull was himself jailed on remand on Friday, forcing the Catalan parliament to abandon a second attempt to hold a vote to make him president.

Attention will now focus on how Catalan and Spanish political forces respond to Puigdemont's detention, said Ms Gray. One outcome could be the CUP deputies being forced to rethink their decision to abstain. Eyes will also be on the Catalunya en Comu platform linked to the anti-austerity party Podemos to see if they might support efforts to elect a government, she said.

'BIG HIT'

Puigdemont's detention is a "big hit" for the separatist movement because he has been central to its narrative in recent months, said political science professor Pablo Simon at Carlos III University in Madrid. Even so, it may also help to focus their energies on ensuring a new government is formed, he said.

To be sure, not everyone is convinced that Puigdemont's detention changes things much.

"In the short term, it will lead to calls for the separatist movement to be more united," said Mr Antonio Barroso, a political risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London. "In the end though, the internal divisions are there and I don't think they're going to disappear."

Catalonia's deadlocked politics have implications across the Spanish political spectrum. The tough legal crackdown on separatism sits badly with the Basque nationalists whose votes PM Rajoy's minority government needs to pass a budget and other important legislation. That friction may mean that a regional government in Catalonia ultimately helps Mr Rajoy's case with the Basques.

The Catalan crisis has, meanwhile, helped Ciudadanos, the pro-Spain force that won the most votes of any party in the regional elections, vault over Mr Rajoy's People's Party to take the lead in national opinion polls. Its leader Albert Rivera celebrated Puigdemont's detention on Sunday in a tweet that said "the flight of the coup-monger is finished".