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Puigdemont may return to Spain for Catalan presidency bid

Exiled Catalan separatist Carles Puigdemont will announce on Thursday whether he will run for president of the region in May, risking his arrest on entering Spain and raising implications for the national government.

Mr Puigdemont led northeastern Catalonia during a 2017 vote to break away from Spain, and a subsequent declaration of independence that courts declared illegal, prompting the Spanish government to impose direct rule in the country’s biggest political crisis in decades.

Mr Puigdemont, 61, fled Spain to avoid arrest over charges of disobedience and embezzlement over the crisis and now lives in Belgium where he serves as an MEP.

However last week, the Catalan government, run by moderate Esquerra Republicana (ERC) leader Pere Aragones, called a surprise election after its parliament failed to approve a budget.

Mr Puigdemont’s hardline Junts party says the former journalist could run as their candidate thanks to an amnesty bill put forward by Spain’s ruling socialists and expected to come into force by May or June.

Pedro Sanchez, seen bottom left, applauds with the chamber following the vote on the amnesty bill

He has also backed the idea, posting on X yesterday: “We went into exile for the same reasons for which we will have to return; the future of our nation and not our personal destiny has inspired all the decisions taken.”

Mr Puigdemont faces a “very low” risk of arrest in Spain and is willing to return nonetheless, his lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, told Reuters.

“We believe the Supreme Court will respect the content of the amnesty law,” he said, meaning the charges Mr Puigdemont faces would be lifted.

But timing will be key. While Mr Puigdemont can campaign from Belgium, he must return to Spain as early as June should his party’s bid to run the regional government succeed.

The application of the amnesty law – sought by the ERC and Junts in return for backing a minority national government led by socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez – will depend on individual judges and some scholars have warned Mr Puigdemont could still not be cleared in time.

There is unanimity in Junts that Mr Puigdemont would be their best candidate for Catalonia’s 12 May election but the decision is up to him, a party official who declined to be identified said.

“Some separatists are bored of Puigdemont, he does not generate the enthusiasm he once did.”

He could either choose to run the gauntlet of legal charges, or stay in Brussels to run in June for a fresh term as an MEP.

Mr Boye said he expected Mr Puigdemont’s arrest warrant for the 2017 events to be lifted quickly once the bill is made law.

There remains the risk that a judge could seek pre-trial detention for Mr Puigdemont over a separate charge of terrorism for allegedly leading an activist group that staged a 2019 raid on Barcelona’s airport.

However, Mr Boye played down the prospect.

Protests at Barcelona airport in 2019

The amnesty law has prompted widespread protests in Spain and Mr Puigdemont’s return would be a hard pill to swallow for those who blame him for threatening Spain’s unity.

Should he become Catalan president, it would bring fresh problems for Mr Sanchez since the independence drive would be reinvigorated and Mr Puigdemont would seek a higher price for his support in Madrid.

Mr Sanchez’s socialists, who have run the national government for almost six years, insist they are unconcerned by the prospect of Mr Puigdemont running.

The socialists lead in two newspaper polls published yesterday ahead of the Catalan election amid a strategy of reconciliation.

Political analyst Joan Esculies said some voters might punish Mr Puigdemont for failing to meet previous separatist promises.

“Catalonia is not the same as it was in 2017,” he said.

“Some separatists are bored of Puigdemont, he does not generate the enthusiasm he once did.”

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