- - Monday, January 15, 2018

BARCELONA, Spain — Donald Trump has his tweets, but fugitive Catalonian separatist leader Carles Puigdemont is opening a new frontier in social media-aided governance.

From his Belgian sanctuary, Mr. Puigdemont is asking the Spanish province’s new parliament, where separatists have retained control despite a bruising battle with the central government, to inaugurate him this week by Skype and allow him to govern “telematically.”

He made the unusual request as a fierce clash between the rebellious northeastern province and the central government in Madrid was flaring again after inconclusive regional elections last month failed to resolve the gravest challenge to Spain’s unity in decades.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned Monday that the government will keep control of Catalonia if the former regional leader tries to resume office from Belgium.

“It’s absurd that someone may intend to be a candidate to be the head of the regional government while being in Brussels and running away from justice,” Mr. Rajoy told reporters Monday in Madrid. “This is no longer just a judicial and political problem; this a problem of pure common sense.”

The latest elections proved a disappointment to both sides.

Mr. Rajoy hoped a majority of Spain’s richest province would reject the separatists, but three pro-independence parties captured 70 of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament.

Pro-independence forces failed to gain a majority of the votes cast, and Ciudadanos, a center-right party gaining support throughout Spain, received the largest single share — 27 percent — of the seven parties competing in the local elections.

Since the vote, the separatists have struggled to find unity and bolster their popular support, even as the Rajoy government dismissed Mr. Puigdemont’s Skype inauguration as surreal.

Officials in the exiled former leader’s Junts per Catalunya have said they will present enabling legislation before the Catalan parliament, which reconvenes Wednesday to allow the online swearing-in to proceed.

Mr. Puigdemont fled to Belgium in November to escape arrest when Mr. Rajoy imposed direct rule on Catalonia in response to a declaration of independence by its regional government.

Mr. Rajoy then called the December regional vote, calculating that parties opposing the break with Spain would ride to victory on a backlash against separatism. But his gamble fell short. After Ciudadanos, Mr. Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya got the second-largest share with 23 percent.

Spanish government officials have said that direct rule provisions they have instituted in Catalonia will remain in place if separatist parties try to install Mr. Puigdemont this week by video conference.

“It’s a fallacy, an impossible pretension. You cannot be president from 2,000 miles away,” said central government chief spokesman Ernesto de Vigo.

He said last week that Madrid would immediately challenge Mr. Puigdemont’s authority in the constitutional court, which earlier declared Catalonia’s independence bid to be illegal.

The Associated Press reported Monday that legal analysts have also informed leaders of the Catalan parliament that the proposed Skype ceremony would not be valid and that the person sworn in as the chamber’s leader must be physically present.

The central government has other cards to play, according to Ciudadanos lawmaker Carlos Carrizosa. He told The Washington Times in an interview that secessionists may be unable to muster a majority because eight of their parliamentary representatives are either in jail or abroad as “fugitives” and can’t attend parliamentary sessions.

Independence leaders have said they can get around the problem.

Spokesmen for the secessionist umbrella organization ANC said their leader, Jordi Sanchez, and two others in prison can give their parliamentary votes to a proxies in the legislature.


But even that would leave the secessionists three votes short of the 68 needed to vote for Mr. Puigdemont. The shortfall could be covered only if three of the five lawmakers who fled to Belgium resigned their seats to be replaced by others down their party’s list, in accordance with Spain’s system of proportional representation.

ANC sources said that is being negotiated. But despite televised images of Mr. Puigdemont meeting with his parliamentary group and forming a shadow Cabinet in Brussels, there are signs that his coalition could be unraveling.

His imprisoned vice president, Oriol Junqueras, has said he should be named president in Mr. Puigdemont’s absence, in effect agreeing with the central government’s premise that the president must be physically present to be elected. There was speculation in the Spanish press that Mr. Junqueras was negotiating his release from prison in exchange for renouncing his region’s independence declaration.

Other secessionist leaders have done so. The president of Catalonia’s parliament, Carmen Forcadell, retracted her support for unilateral independence before a Spanish court last month, and others are reportedly seeking plea bargains.

Mr. Puigdemont’s security chief, Joaquim Forn, has been cooperating in Spain’s widening probe into Catalan police collusion in October’s independence referendum.

“It’s like being back in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, when religious conversion was obtained under duress,” one commentator remarked.

If secessionists fail to muster an absolute majority, then the election for a president would pass to a simple majority, providing an opening for Ciudadanos and its 36-year-old leader, Inez Arrimadas, a former business consultant, to seek an alliance with the Socialists.

Officials of Mr. Rajoy’s Popular party, which got a mere 5 percent in December’s vote, have openly urged Ms. Arrimadas to give it a try.

“We have the full legitimacy to opt for the presidency of the Catalonia’s regional government,” said Mr. Carrizosa, “but it would be complicated.”

All the independence parties would close ranks against Ciudadanos, said ANC spokesman Andre Astis.

“All those exiled in Belgium would concede their seats to fellow independence supporters to block Ciudadanos,” he said in an interview.

Ciudadanos is also opposed by Spain’s leftist Podemos party, whose bloc of eight lawmakers in the Catalan parliament may emerge as power brokers.

Podemos already blocked a bid by Ciudadanos for the parliament’s speakership.

“We may be left with no alternative but supporting the central government’s prolongation of direct rule in Catalonia,” Mr. Carrizosa said.

The growing confusion of Catalonia’s politics could prove a target of opportunity for Russia. Some critics say the Kremlin sees the separatist battle in Spain, a NATO ally that hosts a key U.S. Navy base, as part of a larger drive to sow divisions across Europe, according to Spanish and U.S. intelligence reports.

A Spanish Defense Ministry think tank published a report last week saying cyberoperations targeting Spain similar to the ones in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries where Moscow is seeking to expand its influence.

The Spanish press has revealed that a Catalan communications specialist who is a close aide to Mr. Puigdemont has met in London with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose organization is at the center of the U.S. 2016 election meddling probe after publishing internal Democratic Party documents originally stolen by Russian hackers.

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