Spain | Carles Puigdemont at the helm

The exiled independence leader holds the keys to a tight regional election in Catalonia.

A page will perhaps be turned on Sunday in Catalonia.

If the polls are correct, the Socialist Party could regain power from the separatists who have ruled the region for almost a decade, during regional elections with multiple issues.

Regional branch of the party in power in Madrid, the Catalan PS (PSC) is credited with around forty seats out of 135, thus ahead of the sovereignist parties Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, left) of the outgoing president, Pere Aragonès, and his rival Junts per Catalunya (JxCat, right), led by the most radical Carles Puigdemont, still in exile.

A socialist victory would mean “a new stage” in Catalonia “after ten lost years”, declared the PSC candidate in these elections, Salvador Illa. It would also tend to confirm that the policy of appeasement with the Catalan nationalists, led by the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, now appeals to voters as much as the pure and hardline pro-independence discourse.


Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (right) and Catalan Socialist Party leader Salvador Illa during a campaign rally in Barcelona

The Socialist Party came first in the previous election, in 2021, but was unable to take power, the independence parties having retained the majority in the assembly with 74 seats out of 135. This time, the PSC could benefit from the divisions increased within the sovereignist camp and obtained the support of the more moderate ERC party, with which it shares left-wing affinities.

This game of political alliances, however, seems as dangerous as it is precarious, while in Madrid, the survival of the socialist government of Pedro Sánchez depends essentially on the support of the Catalan nationalist parties, and more particularly the JxCat of Carles Puigdemont.

The latter has in fact threatened to withdraw its support for Sánchez, if the Catalan Socialist Party were to form a coalition government with ERC in Barcelona. “As Sánchez depends on Puigdemont in Madrid, he cannot decide anything in Catalonia without Puigdemont,” explains writer Andreu Jaume, contacted in Barcelona. However, if the Catalan PS obtains the support of ERC, which is Puigdemont’s enemy party within the independence family, Sánchez risks losing Puigdemont’s support in Madrid. »

A scenario which would cause the collapse of the coalition government and the triggering of new elections in Spain, the sixth in less than 10 years. “The situation is quite crazy… and worrying,” summarizes Mr. Jaume.

Blow up the system

Remember that Carles Puigdemont was president of Catalonia at the time of the “illegal” referendum of 2017, which caused the most serious political crisis in Spain since the return of democracy in 1975. Accused of sedition by the central government, he fled to Belgium, from where he managed his political training remotely.

However, his exile seems to be coming to an end. In exchange for their essential support for the inauguration of Pedro Sánchez in Madrid, the separatists last March won an amnesty law for the approximately 400 Catalan political prisoners currently abroad or in prison.

Technically, this highly controversial law could be adopted before mid-June, which would allow Puigdemont to return home without risking arrest. But it must still be voted on in the Senate – which risks rejecting it – then re-voted in Parliament, with probable recourse by the opposition to the constitutional court and before the European Court of Justice. In short, a process that promises to be long and complicated.

According to the historian Benoît Pellistrandi, an expert on Spain, the independence leader would therefore have a “rational” interest “in letting the Sánchez government last until the amnesty is definitively adopted, that is to say not for at least a year.”

In the more or less short term, Carles Puigdemont will still end up “blowing up the system”, believes Mr. Pellistrandi. The collapse of the coalition government in Madrid risks favoring the return to power of the Partido Popular (right), more hostile to the separatists and less open to compromise. This scenario would “fuel the victim discourse” of the separatists, which could breathe new life into the movement, currently losing momentum.

Nothing excludes, that said, a victory for Carles Puigdemont, who is currently campaigning from Perpignan, in French Catalonia. The polls give it a certain momentum and, as Andreu Jaume recalls, “there are still 40% undecided”.

The leader of JXCat still dreams of a grand independence coalition, like in 2017 at the time of the referendum. This rainbow alliance would, however, require bringing together parties as ideologically divergent as Commons (far left) and Aliança Catalana (xenophobic far right) for which one or two seats are predicted on Sunday. Serious challenge ahead.

In the event of a defeat, Carles Puigdemont promised to withdraw from political life.

With Agence France-Presse, Euractiv, Euronews

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  • 5.7 million
    Number of Catalans called to the polls, Sunday May 12 (out of a population of 8 million)

    47.7 million
    Population of Spain


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