Spanish PM threatens to extend direct rule over Catalonia

BARCELONA • Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain has threatened to prolong his government's direct rule over Catalonia, if separatist lawmakers try to allow Mr Carles Puigdemont to run the region from exile.

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

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

Mr Puigdemont 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, Mr Rajoy on Monday described as "absurd" the separatist plan to allow "a fugitive" to take office by videoconference, or by having another lawmaker read Mr Puigdemont acceptance speech on his behalf.

Mr 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 Mr Puigdemont could open the door for a ruling by the constitutional court, which could then block everything," said Mr Pablo Simon, a professor of politics at the Carlos III University in Madrid.

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

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

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

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

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2018, with the headline 'Spanish PM threatens to extend direct rule over Catalonia'. Print Edition | Subscribe