October 13, 2017 / 4:53 PM / a year ago

Catalonia's independence leader wages his own battle for unity

BARCELONA, Oct 13 (Reuters) - Moments before Catalonia’s leader, 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 afterwards, 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 now 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 his 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.


Now Puigdemont, 54, finds himself in a struggle with not only Madrid, but also internally with the CUP, which may 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 as 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.

He said Puigdemont’s party was already sliding in opinion polls.

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.

“I am talking to the world,” he told them when pressed for an explanation, according to two people who were present.

Some in the room said they suspected he had taken a phone call from a senior EU figure in Brussels, though the heads of the two main EU political institutions, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, said it was not them.

One EU official, however, said there was reason to believe that an emotional personal appeal Tusk had made publicly to Puigdemont a couple of hours before he was due to speak had weighed on the Catalan leader’s decision.

Puigdemont has always considered world opinion as crucial to Catalan independence: as a journalist in the 1990s, he travelled Europe to research media impressions of Catalonia and wrote a book, ‘Cata ... que?’ (Cata ... what?).

A supporter of the European Union, he switches easily from Catalan to Spanish, French or Romanian, the native language of his wife, whom he met at the Catalan News Agency he founded.

“The president made a speech which was very much addressed to EU institutions and governments,” a Catalan government source said on condition of anonymity.

Puigdemont also made clear that he considered it would be Spain’s responsibility if it rejected his offer of dialogue.

Several neighbouring countries criticised Spain’s use of force to disrupt Catalonia’s Oct. 1 independence referendum, which had been banned by Madrid. Hundreds were injured when police used batons and rubber bullets on voters.

The crackdown, though, fired up independence supporters and hardened expectations among Puigdemont’s base that he would unilaterally declare independence in parliament.

When he didn’t, supporters watching his speech on large screens outside the assembly buried their heads in their hands, some wept, and they rolled up their Catalan flags and went home.

Inside, the recriminations were well underway.

Some lawmakers in Puigdemont’s Junts pel Si coalition said they, too, had only been informed of his tactic at the 11th hour, though the spokesman for Puigdemont’s party denied this.

The government source said Catalan companies leaving the region in the days before his speech had also weighed on Puigdemont’s mind.

Several firms, including Catalonia’s two major banks, moved their legal headquarters to other parts of Spain. Some anxious Catalan depositors travelled to neighbouring regions to open bank accounts there.

Jordi Alberich, director of Barcelona-based business association Cercle D’Economia, met Puigdemont on Oct. 7.

“He seemed to be very conscious of the consequences of a unilateral declaration of independence,” Alberich said. “He was very worried about companies fleeing.” (Additional reporting by Alastair MacDonald in Brussels; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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