Sun, Oct 15, 2017 - Page 5 News List

Catalan president wages his own battle for unity

Reuters, BARCELONA, Spain

A man wearing a Spanish flag, left, and another wearing a Catalan Estelada flag talk during Spain’s National Day celebrations in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday.

Photo: AP

Moments before Catalan President Carles Puigdemont baulked at declaring independence from Spain this week, cracks were already appearing in his secessionist ranks.

Some members of his political alliance say they were waiting for him at Barcelona’s 18th-century regional parliament building on Tuesday evening, fully expecting him to call for an independence vote in the chamber that night.

Instead, after arriving late, to the cheers of thousands of supporters, the former journalist and lifetime advocate of independence told his allies an hour before entering the chamber that there had been a late change of plan, according to one of those present.

There would be no vote. Instead, Puigdemont made a symbolic declaration of independence, then suspended it and called for negotiations with Madrid.

“We are annoyed, we are hurt, we are angry, because he came up with a strategic change one hour before the parliamentary session,” said Carles Riera, a member of the Catalan parliament from the far-left CUP party, which backs an unequivocal declaration of independence and whose support keeps Puigdemont’s minority government alive.

A spokesman for Puigdemont’s party denied he had surprised all of his own political allies, saying his core coalition had agreed the plan in the morning.

The CUP was not included in that morning meeting, but was informed afterward, the spokesman said, without saying when.

The CUP’s claim of betrayal reveals the shaky political foundations upon which Catalonia’s independence movement is built, a jumble of parties ranging from anti-capitalists to free marketeers whose only common cause is to split from Spain.

There are doubts over Puigdemont’s ability to survive the worst confrontation between Catalonia, a former principality with its own language and culture, and Madrid in 40 years.

Members of the CUP say Puigdemont lost his nerve at the crucial moment.

One CUP lawmaker present at the meeting, Eulalia Reguant, quit the day after, citing Puigdemont’s reversal.

Instead of persuading Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to accept talks, his gesture was met with an ultimatum: Renounce independence by Thursday or Madrid will use its constitutional power to take control of the region directly.

Puigdemont, 54, finds himself in a struggle with not only Madrid, but also internally with the CUP, which might end up being the bigger danger for his political career and for his prospects of winning another regional election on a pro-independence platform.

The small CUP party had ousted Puigdemont’s predecessor, former Catalan president Artur Mas, in 2015.

It refused to back the mainstream independence coalition, Junts pel Si, unless Mas stepped down.

“If Puigdemont backs down and says we tried, but this is not working, unilateral secession isn’t doable, I don’t think CUP will support him again,” said Eurasia analyst Federico Santi.

In the final hour before Puigdemont stood up in the regional parliament to announce that he was suspending the independence push, he also made it clear to those in his political circle that their voices were not the only ones that mattered.

On Friday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that he does not want Catalonia to become independent from Spain, because it could trigger a separatist domino effect in the EU.

“If we allow Catalonia — though it’s not our business — to separate itself from Spain, others will do the same and I wouldn’t like to have that,” Juncker said in a speech to students in his native Luxembourg.

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