Fugitive Ex-Catalan Leader Calls on Talks with Spain

Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont speaks during a media conference in Brussels on Friday, Dec. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

By ARITZ PARRA and BARRY HATTON

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Former Catalan leader and separatist champion Carles Puigdemont called Friday for talks with his adversary, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy following a regional election in Catalonia that gave pro-independence parties a parliamentary majority.

Puigdemont, who fled Spain almost two months ago to avoid arrest after going against court rulings and pushing for unilateral Catalan independence, said in Brussels Thursday’s election in the restive Spanish region opened “a new era” for Catalonia.

He said he was ready to meet with Rajoy without pre-conditions anywhere in the European Union other than Spain.

“More than 2 million people are in favor of Catalonia’s independence,” Puigdemont said, referring to the election results.

“Recognizing reality is vital if we are to find a solution,” Puigdemont told a press conference in Brussels.

He added that he’d return to Barcelona if the new parliament elects him as regional leader, though the legal protections he would have as an elected leader are unclear.

Rajoy called the snap election after Catalan separatists declared independence in October following a referendum deemed illegal by Spanish authorities. Rajoy also fired the Catalan government that Puigdemont ran and dissolved its parliament. He has ruled out independence for the wealthy northeastern Spanish region, saying it is unconstitutional.

Though the pro-Spain Ciutadans (Citizens) collected most votes in the ballot, it was a bittersweet victory for the business-friendly party as separatist parties won most seats in the region’s parliament.

Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia snared 34 seats in the 135-seat regional assembly, making it the most popular separatist party. Two other pro-independence parties made up the dominant bloc: the left-wing republican ERC party, which collected 32 seats, and the radical, anti-capitalist CUP, which has four seats.

Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party came last with just three seats in what was a major blow to the country’s governing party.

The separatists’ slim parliamentary majority will allow them together to negotiate the formation of a government. Past squabbles between them suggest it won’t be easy.

Fernando Vallespin, a professor of political studies at Madrid’s Autonomous University, said there were many unpredictable factors clouding the immediate future of Catalonia, including the legal issues and whether the separatist parties can find common ground. “It really is an unknown situation,” he said.

A reminder of the separatists’ legal woes came when a judge investigating them for leading an illegal independence push in October announced Friday is widening the rebellion and sedition probe to six more Catalan politicians.

People walking by the sea in the Catalan capital Barcelona said before Puigdemont spoke Friday that they want Spain’s political leaders to sit down and figure out a solution for the tense and drawn-out stalemate.

Beatriz Versosa, a 33-year-old product manager, regretted the lack of progress and said “the rulers of Spain and Catalonia (must) put themselves in the place of citizens and understand that they must solve the issue and set aside the most extreme positions.”

Mercedes Aras chided the Spanish government for imposing direct rule from Madrid after Catalan separatist parties in October unilaterally declared independence. The 54-year-old historian wanted Spanish authorities to “sit down to negotiate on a realistic basis.”

Meanwhile, computer analyst Didag Fortun said the ballot changed nothing and that politicians “should look now for a different solution to solve the problem.”

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Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal. Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.

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