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Fugitive Catalan leader could determine who governs in Spain

AFP
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Fugitive Catalan leader could determine who governs in Spain
Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (L) shake hands before a meeting in 2016. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

Most pollsters saw Spain's far-right Vox in the role of kingmaker, but none imagined it would be exiled Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont emerging as the key piece in the puzzle from Sunday's inconclusive snap election.

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Although the right-wing Popular Party (PP) is demanding the right to rule after winning the vote, it seems a remote possibility given that it didn't manage to secure an absolute majority, even with the support of Vox.

And that offers a chance for Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to cling onto power if he wins the backing of several Basque and Catalan independence parties whose parliamentary support was key to propping up his outgoing minority government.

READ ALSO: Five key takeaways from Spain's general election

Even so, Sánchez would still need to secure the agreement of JxCat, the hardline separatist party headed by Puigdemont, whose seven lawmakers hold the key to the Socialist leader passing any parliamentary investiture vote.

And the irony of being kingmaker was not lost on the former Catalan leader who fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution over his role in the failed 2017 independence bid that sparked Spain's worst crisis in decades.

"One day you are decisive in order to form a Spanish government, the next day Spain orders your arrest," tweeted Puigdemont in English after Spain issued a fresh warrant for his arrest just hours after the election results became clear.

Founded by Puigdemont, JxCat has long pursued a strategy of confrontation with Madrid in contrast to the stance of its more moderate separatist rival, ERC which has regularly offered support to Sánchez's government.

Although JxCat had backed the no-confidence motion that propelled Sánchez into the premiership in June 2018, it voted against his investiture vote in January 2020.

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'Completely unacceptable'

On Sunday evening, as the results emerged, the JxCat leadership made clear it would not be party to Sánchez's return to power without something in return, prompting an immediate backlash from Alberto Nunez Feijóo's PP.

"The only alternative to Feijóo is having Puigdemont run the Spanish government," retorted Juanma Moreno, the PP leader who heads the southern Andalusia region.

For years, JxCat has pushed for the right to stage an independence referendum and for an amnesty for the separatist leaders still wanted by the Spanish justice system, like Puigdemont.

"We won't help Pedro Sánchez become prime minister for anything, our priority is Catalonia and not the governability of Spain. We will not budge an inch," insisted JxCat's Miriam Nogueras.

Although Sánchez pardoned nine Catalan separatist leaders serving long jail terms over the botched secession bid in 2021, agreeing to JxCat's demands would be tantamount to crossing a red line for the Socialist leader.

"It would be completely unacceptable for any Spanish government to accept either of these two conditions.. and JxCat knows it," said Ana Sofia Cardenal, a political scientist at Catalonia's Open University.

READ ALSO: Spain's election gridlock - What happens next?

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A delicate balancing act

Everything now depends on the outcome of deliberations within the hardline separatist faction.

"If JxCat ends up being responsible for triggering a repeat election, how will that impact the party in the next vote? That's the question they are pondering now," said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist from Barcelona's Autonomous University.

"If the answer is yes" to a new election that could allow it to "bring down" its ERC rival, which saw its number of seats falling from 13 to 7 in Sunday's election, then JxCat won't do anything to help Sanchez, he said.

"It's very ironic," admitted Cardenal.

Many Socialists, she said, had "swung to the right" over the Catalan crisis with many angered by Sanchez's move to pardon those involved, who still harbour "a real hatred of Puigdemont".

"And now it turns out that Puigdemont holds the key to Spain's governability," she said.

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