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Last stand in Waterloo: Puigdemont sets high price to break Spanish vote impasse

Last stand in Waterloo: Puigdemont sets high price to break Spanish vote impasse

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LAST STAND IN WATERLOO

Puigdemont sets high price to break Spanish vote impasse

Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont holds the key to Pedro Sánchez staying in office — but he’s driving a hard bargain.

By AITOR HERNÁNDEZ-MORALES
and EDDY WAX in Brussels

Photo-illustration by Anthony Gerace for POLITICO

Spain’s political future will be decided by one secluded man in a damp corner of Belgium.

Six years after organizing an illegal referendum that sought to make Catalonia an independent republic, the region’s former President Carles Puigdemont is once again positioned to shake Spain to its core.

With left and right-wing forces technically tied in the Spanish parliament, the country’s next government now depends on the support of seven lawmakers of the separatist Junts party which Puigdemont founded and controls remotely.

From his suburban home in the quaint Walloon town of Waterloo, located just a stone’s throw from the battlefields where Napoleon’s defeat determined Europe’s destiny two centuries ago, Puigdemont is poised to decide what happens in the country from which he fled.

Will he ensure socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez remains in office, or spark new elections that could give the right another shot at power?

“Junts owes nothing to anyone but its voters,” the Catalan leader tweeted hours after the July 23 election. “Our voters, our program, our commitments, have been and are the references of our political action.”

Kingmaker on the run

When the Spanish parliament reconvenes next week, one question will dominate: Who has enough support to become Spain’s next prime minister?

Neither Sánchez nor center-right Popular Party leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo control enough seats to be elected outright. 

But a simple majority in parliament is all that’s needed. That’s where Junts — and Puigdemont — come in.

After years condemned to relative irrelevance in a Spanish political landscape where the independence of Catalonia is no longer a leading topic, Puigdemont is determined to exploit his newfound advantage as both sides seek deals with smaller parties.

“With the final results in hand, the options are even clearer,” the Catalan leader tweeted last week. “Either @JuntsXCat votes in favor [of Sánchez], or the socialists end up backing Feijóo (or whatever candidate the Popular Party proposes), or we go to an electoral repeat.”

As the unparalleled kingmaker, Puigdemont — who declined to speak to POLITICO on the record for this article — has made clear that in exchange for his party’s support, he intends to demand everything he was denied so far.

Still pursued by Spanish law, the Catalan leader wants amnesty declared not just for him, but for all charged in connection to the failed 2017 independence referendum. And he also still wants that self-determination vote for Catalonia — this time with Madrid’s formal endorsement.

Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister María Jesús Montero has already rejected both demands, explaining that the socialists can only negotiate “within the margins of legality set out within the Spanish constitution.”

But Puigdemont and his party are refusing to budge — even if that means an electoral repeat.

And how rigidly Junts sticks to its red lines will depend a man who has lived far from home and under the threat of imprisonment since 2017.

Alone in Wallonia 

Even if he no longer leads the party, Puigdemont effectively controls it from his base in Belgium and insists on playing a direct part in any negotiations with Madrid.

In a recent tweet, Puigdemont bitterly complained about “the experience of exile”: receiving threats every week, being the subject of smear campaigns and discovering tracking devices in his car.

SPAIN NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

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“I have been compared, in serious newspaper articles, to that miserable Germanwings pilot who deliberately crashed the plane in the Alps,” he wrote. “They have talked about my mental health without having any respect for the person or for people who do actually suffer from illnesses.”

He insisted, however, that his years away from home would neither condition his decision, nor spur him into taking action.

“Having the key is circumstantial: One day you have it, and the next day you don’t,” he wrote. “This cannot make us fall either into haste in the face of fear of losing it, or into overacting in the face of a power that is inevitably ephemeral.”

Marcela Topor, the Romanian journalist who has been married to Puigdemont since 2000, said that her husband has “always been prepared for this moment.”

“In politics, anything can happen at any time; this is part of his work, this is part of his life,” she told POLITICO.

Topor said that during his time in Belgium, Puigdemont and their two daughters have led a normal life — all things considered. She described family scenes in which Puigdemont plays piano and guitar, goes to the market, and looks after their two cats Nino and Max.

But that rosy picture has also been marred by the death threats she said her husband regularly received, as well as incidents in which angry Spaniards had shown up and “done ugly stuff to the house.”

Topor added that, despite keeping a lower profile, Puigdemont kept a strong support network of his own.

“Myself and our daughters are very proud of Carles — he has always had our support, and always will,” she said.

Puigdemont now lives in the Waterloo home on his own; Topor said that she and their daughters had returned to Catalonia.

Game of chicken

Puigdemont’s relative isolation in the Walloon town contrasts with the seemingly healthy integration of Toni Comín, who is also sought by Spanish authorities and similarly living in self-imposed exile in Belgium.

Settled in the lively Flemish university city of Leuven in the Dutch-speaking Flanders region, Comín, who represents Junts in the European Parliament, described how his family had bonded with the other parents at the school of his young daughter, who has learned Dutch.

But he insisted that “being more integrated in Leuven doesn’t make the exile any less unjust.”

Comín told POLITICO that though no formal negotiations had yet been held, Puigdemont and Sánchez were already engaged in a “game of chicken” where each side is waiting for the other to make the first move.

The lawmaker said that while a “repeat election is not our desired or preferred scenario, we have no problem with it.”

If a new vote were to be held, Junts might be punished by electors and lose political power. And if the right wing were to win a decisive victory in that electoral repeat, Catalan separatists would face a much more hostile government in Madrid.

“If Sánchez can prove that he’s better than the Popular Party, we’ll vote for him,” Comín said. “He can do that by granting us an amnesty and a referendum.” 

Topor said her husband’s goal is not about “finding happy solutions for himself … It’s about Catalonia — that’s why he’s in exile.”

“The ball is in Spain’s court,” she said. “If they want to negotiate, Carles is there — he has always been there — and if not, then I guess there will be new elections.”

In the photos above, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont speaks to the press in Belgium; Puigdemont meets Pedro Sánchez, then Spain’s opposition leader, in Barcelona in 2016; conservative leader Alberto Nunez Feijóo celebrates his victory in last month’s Spanish election | John Thys, Sean Gallup, Josep Lago and Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images

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