March 1, 2018 / 4:42 PM / 18 days ago

Puigdemont pulls back from candidacy for Catalan leadership

MADRID (Reuters) - Catalonia’s former leader Carles Puigdemont pulled back from a bid for a second term in office on Thursday, dealing a blow to the Spanish northeastern region’s secessionist movement.

Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont takes part in a meeting with members of the Catalan Parliament, in Brussels, Belgium, February 5, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Puigdemont became the movement’s figurehead in the run-up to a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament in October, after which he and his administration were sacked by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and he fled into self-imposed exile in Brussels.

Pro-independence parties won a majority in elections that Rajoy called in Catalonia in December, and Puigdemont had campaigned to be re-instated as the region’s leader. Supporters had said he could govern remotely.

Announcing he was provisionally withdrawing his candidacy, he said that decision “is founded in one reason only - under current conditions it’s the way to get a new government under way”.

Standing in front of the Catalan regional flag and the European Union flag in an undisclosed location, he spoke in a televised address released on his social media accounts.

Puigdemont said his party would propose a pro-secession campaigner, Jordi Sanchez - currently in remand in a Madrid prison on charges of sedition - as an alternative candidate.

Catalonia has been ruled directly from Madrid for the last four months since Rajoy invoked constitutional powers to take over government in the region.

Puigdemont faces charges of sedition and rebellion in Spain and is likely to be arrested if he returns. Catalan parliamentary legal experts and the Spanish government rejected the notion of him governing from Brussels.

The nomination of Sanchez is likely to be just as fraught with difficulty, given that he is in detention.

Rajoy said on Thursday that a Catalan leader “must be chosen now who is in Spain... and who has no problems with the law”.

His office added that Catalonia needed a leader “in place as soon as possible who is able to govern and take care of matters of importance to its citizens”.

Lawyers on Thursday lodged a complaint against Spain on Puigdemont’s behalf with the United Nations Human Rights Council, the former leader said on Thursday, for violating the right of self-determination.

Three Catalan independence leaders being held in pre-trial detention have already lodged a complaint against their imprisonment with a U.N. panel, hoping to exert pressure on Madrid to free them.

Earlier on Thursday, the Catalan parliament had voted to support Puigdemont and reaffirm the validity of the independence referendum in a tense first session following December’s election.

The motion, put forward by Puigdemont’s party, recognized the legitimacy of Puigdemont as leader of Catalonia while stressing the importance of forming an effective government in the region.

However, it gave no clue as to how the region could move forward from a political impasse that has prevented the naming of a leader since the election.

Additional reporting by Jesus Aguado; Editing by Kevin Liffey and John Stonestreet

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