Ousted Catalan premier Puigdemont beats separatist rival at European elections

The politician, who is living in Belgium after fleeing Spain, won 28% of the vote, while Oriol Junqueras obtained 21%

Miquel Noguer
Carles Puigdemont walks towards the European Parliament.
Carles Puigdemont walks towards the European Parliament.Delmi Alvarez

Former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont won more votes than his separatist rival, Catalan Republican Left (ERC) leader Oriol Junqueras, at the European elections on Sunday. Puigdemont, who fled Spain to avoid arrest after the unilateral independence declaration of October 2017 and is now living in Belgium, won 28% of the vote in Catalonia, while Junqueras, who remained in Spain and is being held in prison as he faces trial for his involvement in the 2017 separatist drive, took 21%.

Junqueras was also recently successful at the Spanish general election of April 28, and was voted into Spain’s lower house of parliament, the Congress, as a deputy for ERC. However, he and three of his fellow defendants who also became deputies, were suspended last week from their roles as parliamentarians until the ongoing Supreme Court trial concludes.

Puigdemont’s party Together For Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya), a political platform that includes members of his own Catalan European Democratic Party (PdeCAT) and independents, won two seats in the European Parliament. Ahora Repúblicas (Republics Now), the electoral alliance representing the ERC, Basque nationalist party EH Bildu and the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), won three seats thanks to the support from regions outside of Catalonia.

Never before had there been so much expectation over how Catalonia would vote at the European elections. Puigdemont and Junqueras had presented the vote as a kind of primary ahead of a Catalan regional election, which is privately expected to take place this year. Together for Catalonia, led by Puigdemont and ousted deputy Toni Comín, who is also a fugitive from Spanish justice, clearly beat Junqueras’s alliance. The former premier won in four Catalan provinces, while Republics Now came in third position, behind the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), which won 22% of the vote.

Puigdemont has refused to clarify if he will travel to Madrid to be sworn in as an MEP

But it remains unclear whether Puigdemont will be able to serve as a member of the European Parliament (MEP), as he would have to be sworn in to the role in Spain, where he would be arrested on charges of rebellion and misuse of public funds. In a report requested by the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, legal services from the Parliament recognized that Puigdemont and other separatist leaders with arrests warrants pending had the right to run for the European election, but insisted that “their presence in Madrid is necessary in order for them to swear on the Spanish Constitution and be included on the list that Spanish authorities will communicate to the European Parliament.”

What’s more, the report indicated that if Puigdemont were arrested in Spain, it would be up to Spanish legal authorities to decide whether he could complete the process to be sworn in as an MEP.

Puigdemont maintains he will be an MEP, arguing that from today onward he has immunity from the Spanish justice system. But he has refused to clarify if he will travel to Madrid to be sworn in at the constitutive assembly, planned for July 2. Indeed, Puigdemont has based his campaign on the message that he can best represent the interests of the pro-independence movement because he can travel freely across Europe, if not in Spain. Without directly mentioning Junqueras, who has been in custody since 2017, Puigdemont and his followers have successfully spread the message that an “exile” is a better representative of the Catalans than a “prisoner.”

ERC, for their part, presented Junqueras as a dependable leader who has faced up to all of his actions and has worked the hardest to create an independent Catalan republic. During the campaign and at last night’s speeches, the ideological debate between the two separatist parties was never framed in terms of the left and right.

The ERC had hoped that a victory at Sunday’s local and European polls would make them the clear leaders of the pro-independence movement. But while the party made gains at a local level, this success was not repeated at the European election, which calls into question Junqueras’s leadership.

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau defeated by ERC

The acting mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, was defeated by the Catalan Republican Left by a margin of just over 4,800 votes at the local elections on Sunday. This means Barcelona City Hall may be led by a separatist mayor for the first time in history.

The ERC won 21.3% of the vote, while Colau's party, Barcelona en Comú, won 20.7%. Both parties obtained 10 councilors, with Barcelona en Comú losing a seat and the ERC doubling its result from the 2015 election. Colau's party lost a lot of support in low-income districts that supported her in 2015, such as Nou Barris, which was won by the Catalan Socialists.

ERC's candidate, Ernest Maragall, is likely to be the new mayor of the Catalan capital but will need the support of Junts per Barcelona to be sworn in. "We have done it. Barcelona will have a republican and progressive mayor from the ERC," Maragall said after the election results were announced on Sunday.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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