Former Catalan leader says can govern Spanish region from Belgium after big election win

Mr Carles Puigdemont stands a good chance to be voted in at a parliamentary session due by the end of the month. PHOTO: AFP

BARCELONA (AFP) - Catalonia's former leader Carles Puigdemont, who was sacked by Madrid over his attempt to break from Spain, said on Friday (Jan 19) he can govern the region from Belgium - where he is in self-exile - as he eyes a comeback after scoring big in elections.

"There are only two options: in prison I would not be able to address people, write, meet people," Mr Puigdemont, who risks arrest on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds if he returns to Spain, told Catalunya Radio.

"The only way is to continue doing it freely and safely."

"Nowadays, big business, academic and research projects are essentially managed using new technology," he added.

His comments came as Catalonia's new parliamentary speaker, Mr Roger Torrent from the pro-independence ERC party, held talks with party representatives to pick a candidate for the regional presidency.

Mr Puigdemont, who was sacked along with his Cabinet on Oct 27 after the regional Parliament declared independence, is the only candidate from Catalonia's separatist grouping to lead the region.

And given pro-independence parties won an absolute majority in elections on Dec 21, he in theory stands a good chance to be voted in at a parliamentary session due by the end of the month.

But there is a huge stumbling block in the way: he is in Belgium and won't come back to Spain.

The Catalan Parliament's legal experts say the contender has to be physically present.

But Mr Puigdemont insists he has the legitimate mandate of the people to rule after his Together for Catalonia list won the most votes within the separatist camp in the elections.

He wants to present his candidacy and government programme to Parliament - a prerequisite to being voted in - remotely via video link or by having someone else read it for him.

The central government in Madrid, though, has warned it will take the matter to court and keep direct control over Catalonia if Mr Puigdemont tries to govern from Belgium.

Ultimately, it will be up to Mr Torrent and his deputies - three of whom are pro-independence and three others against it - to decide whether to allow lawmakers to vote for a president even if he is not present.

In the interview, Mr Puigdemont said he wanted to reinstate his sacked government as well as its policies, marked by disobedience towards Spanish courts and a failed strategy to break from Spain while he was president.

"We have a plan to restore democracy, the institutions and policies," he said. "The result of these elections validate our government programme."

Madrid's direct rule, imposed after the independence declaration, has caused resentment in a region that had enjoyed considerable autonomy before its leaders attempted to break away from Spain.

According to Economy Minister Luis de Guindos, the secession crisis that kicked off in earnest on Oct 1, when Catalan leaders held an independence referendum despite a court ban, has taken a financial toll.

He has said the crisis has slowed economic growth in the region at an estimated cost of one billion euros (S$1.62 billion).

More than 3,000 companies have moved their legal headquarters out of the region as uncertainty persists.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.