MADRID/BRUSSELS: Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who left Spain for Belgium after his government was sacked following a declaration of independence, said on Friday he was ready to stand in a snap election in the region next month.
Puigdemont ignored a court order to return to Spain on Thursday to answer charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds relating to Catalonia’s independence push.
Nine members of his dismissed cabinet were ordered to be held in custody on Thursday pending an investigation and potential trial.
A Madrid judge is expected to issue a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont, a senior court source said. His lawyer has said he did not trust Spanish justice though he would cooperate with the Belgian courts.
“I am ready to be a candidate… it’s possible to run a campaign from anywhere,” Puigdemont told Belgian state television RTBF, referring to the election called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy following the unilateral independence declaration.
“We consider ourselves a legitimate government. There must be a continuity to tell the world what’s going on in Spain… It’s not with a government in jail that the elections will be neutral, independent, normal.”
In protest at the jailings, Catalan civic groups Asamblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural — whose leaders were imprisoned last month on sedition charges — called for a general strike on Nov. 8 and a mass demonstration on Nov. 11 .
One member of the dismissed cabinet, Santi Vila, was released after paying bail of 50,000 euros ($58,300) on Friday. The other eight were not given bail and could remain in custody for up to four years.
Vila stepped down from the Catalan cabinet before Friday’s independence declaration, and while he remains a supporter of an secession he has been advocating a negotiated solution with the central government.
He has said he wanted to stand as the leading candidate for Puigdemont’s PdeCat (Catalan Democratic party) in the regional election.
Another six Catalan leaders are due to testify on Nov. 9 on the same charges. Four members of the sacked regional government are with Puigdemont in Belgium and also ignored orders to testify before the High Court.
The court source said a judge would “most likely” issue a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont and his four associates on Friday.
Belgium will have a maximum of three months to decide whether to send Puigdemont back to Spain.
The detention of the secessionist leaders and Puigdemont’s flight to Belgium have given a new boost to the secessionist camp after cracks appeared in its ranks.
Thousands of people staged pro-independence protests on Thursday night in several Catalan towns, and parties forming the current coalition Junts Pel Si (Together For Yes) are pushing to run again on a joint ticket at the Dec. 21 election.
An opinion poll published on Tuesday showed Junts Pel Si would win the December election with 35.2 percent if the vote was held today and would likely reach a parliamentary majority if it stuck with its current pact with far-left party CUP.
Facing such a prospect, the Spanish government said on Friday it would have no option but to open talks within the law with those who held a majority.
“We could offer a new dialogue so that we can fulfill Catalans’ aspirations for more autonomy and look into reforming the constitution,” Foreign Affairs Minister Alfonso Dastis told French newspaper Le Figaro in an interview.
“Some even mention the idea of a federal model so that regions can have more autonomy, including financially.”