Ex-Catalan leader granted freedom to campaign for independence

BRUSSELS/MADRID, November 6 (Reuters): Catalonia’s former leader Carles Puigdemont was spared custody on Monday, when a Brussels court ruled he could remain at liberty in Belgium until it had heard Spanish allegations of rebellion against him. The court’s decision means Puigdemont, who left Spain last month after Madrid fired his secessionist government and dissolved the Catalan parliament, is free to campaign for independence for an election in the region on Dec 21.

 

The vote is shaping up as a de facto independence referendum. Puigdemont’s PDeCAT and another secessionist party said at the weekend they might run on a combined ticket, but would need to make a decision on any formal alliance — which might also include other parties — by a deadline of Tuesday. Alliances could however also form after the election.

 

The independence push has dragged Spain in to its worst political crisis since its return to democracy four decades ago and has deeply divided the country, fuelling anti-Spanish feelings in Catalonia and nationalist tendencies elsewhere. Puigdemont turned himself in to Belgian police on Sunday along with four of his ex-ministers, after Spain issued a European arrest warrant on charges of rebellion as well as misuse of public funds.

 

All five are barred from leaving Belgium without a judge’s consent. “The next step in the proceedings is the appearance of the five defendants before the Chambre du Conseil within the next 15 days,” prosecutors said in a statement. The Chambre is a court of first instance that is responsible for ruling on extradition requests.

 

Spain’s central government took control of Catalonia, which makes up a fifth of the national economy, after local leaders held an independence referendum on Oct. 1 despite a Constitutional Court ban. The region’s parliament then passed a unilateral declaration of independence. In response, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy fired the government and called the snap regional elections.

 

STEADY SUPPORT FOR SECESSION

Opinion polls show support for secession and for Puigdemont and his allies, eight of whom stayed behind in Spain and are being detained on similar accusations to the ones the deposed leader faces, has remained steady. On Sunday, the first part of a GAD3 survey showed that pro-independence parties would win the election but may not gain the parliamentary majority needed to continue with secession.

 

On Monday, the second part showed just one in seven people from Catalonia believe the current standoff between Barcelona and Madrid will end in independence for the region while more than two thirds think the process has been bad for the economy. Published in La Vanguardia newspaper, that survey polled 1,233 people between Oct. 30 and Nov. 3.

 

Optimism that a negotiated solution would be found was low, with just over a fifth of respondents thinking the crisis would lead to talks between regional authorities and Madrid. The uncertainty has prompted more than 2,000 companies to relocate their legal headquarters out of the region since Oct. 1, while the Bank of Spain said if the conflict persists it could lead to slower growth and job creation. According to the poll, 67 percent said they believed the process had hurt the economy and almost 40 percent said the company exodus would have a negative effect on growth in the short term.

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