Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy threatens to extend direct rule over Catalonia

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy delivering a speech in Madrid, Spain, on Jan 9, 2018.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy delivering a speech in Madrid, Spain, on Jan 9, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

BARCELONA (NYTIMES) - Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy threatened on Monday (Jan 15) to prolong his government's direct rule over Catalonia if separatists lawmakers try to allow Carles Puigdemont to run the region from exile.

Rajoy ousted Puidgemont and his government in October (2017) for leading Catalonia's drive to break from Spain and called new elections in hopes of a change of leadership.

The election in December did not yield the result Rajoy had hoped for, however, with separatist parties winning 47.5 per cent of the vote, which was sufficient to keep their parliamentary majority.

Puidgemont now appears poised to become Catalonia's leader once again, despite having fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution in Spain, possibly for sedition and rebellion.

Speaking before officials of his own Popular Party, Rajoy described as "absurd" the separatist plan to allow "a fugitive" to take office by video conference, or by having another lawmaker read Puidgemont's acceptance speech on his behalf.

"To be sworn in, you have to do so physically," Rajoy said. "Realism and common sense should prevail."

Rajoy's warning was clearly an attempt to add to the heavy pressures on Catalonia's separatist lawmakers, who are divided over how to revive their failed independence drive.

The separatists know that "any benevolent interpretation of the rules to favour Puigdemont could open the door for a ruling by the constitutional court, which could then block everything," said Pablo Simón, a professor of politics at the Carlos III University in Madrid.

On the other hand, he added, "if it's not Puidgemont, then who is the alternative?"

Indeed, the fragile parliamentary majority the separatists won in December is further tested by the fact that eight of their 70 elected lawmakers are either in jail in Madrid or have joined Puigdemont in Belgium.

Oriol Junqueras, the former deputy leader of Catalonia, is among the jailed politicians.

Rajoy's tough stance underscored the larger quandary for Catalonia and its deadlock with Spain, which now threatens to fester indefinitely.

Later Monday, legal experts of the Catalan parliament backed Rajoy's position, warning that Puigdemont could not take office remotely without breaching the assembly's own rules.