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Court rules Puigdemont must return to Spain for re-election

January 27, 2018

The President of the Parliament of Catalonia Roger Torrent addresses the media after a meeting with ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont in Brussels on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spain’s top court said Saturday that Catalonia’s fugitive ex-president must return to the country and be present in the regional parliament to receive the authority to form a new government.

The Constitutional Court ruled that a session of Catalonia’s parliament scheduled for Tuesday would be suspended if former leader Carles Puigdemont tries to be re-elected without being physically present in the chamber.

The court also said that Puigdemont must seek judicial authorization to attend the session.

Catalonia’s separatist lawmakers have been considering voting Puigdemont back in as regional chief without him returning from Belgium, weighing options that included another parliament member standing in for him or him addressing the lawmakers via video.

The separatist leader fled Spain after the regional parliament made an unsuccessful declaration of independence on Oct. 27 in violation of Spain’s Constitution. He is wanted in Spain on possible rebellion and sedition charges and is likely to be arrested if he returns.

The court, in a unanimous decision of the 11 magistrates present, said that the investiture of Puigdemont would be suspended without the previous authorization of a judge, “even if he is physically in the chamber.”

That specification comes amid speculation that Puigdemont could try to slip back into Spain and sneak past police into the Barcelona-based parliament to be re-elected. Spain’s Interior Minister, Juan Ignacio Zoido, said this week that police were increasing surveillance to ensure that doesn’t happen.

The court also ruled that neither Puigdemont nor the four other former members of his Cabinet who also fled to Belgium to avoid a judicial summons three months ago could delegate their vote for Tuesday’s session in another candidate.

The court included a warning to the speaker of the Catalan parliament and the other members of his board that they would be breaking the law if they disobey the rulings.

Saturday’s decisions by the court came in response to a request filed by the central government led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to suspend the investiture session as long as Puigdemont was the candidate.

The court said it would need more time to study whether there were grounds to suspend the session. It said it would give central authorities and Puigdemont’s party 10 days to present their arguments.

“As democrats we all have the obligation to respect the decisions of the courts,” Rajoy wrote on Twitter. “Spain’s government will continue to carry out its duty to defend the Law and the rights of Catalans and all Spaniards.”

It is still unclear whether the separatist majority in Catalonia’s parliament will heed the court’s ban on voting Puigdemont back into power unless he is there.

Nor is it a sure bet that Puigdemont won’t try to avoid police and return to the parliament come Tuesday, even if it would likely lead to his arrest either before or after the debate. Puigdemont has insisted that his goal is to “restore” his government, and even a short-lived return to power by him would be a huge embarrassment for Rajoy.

The independence declaration in October brought to a head Spain’s worst political crisis in decades. Spain responded by invoking special powers allowing it to fire the regional government, dissolve Catalonia’s parliament and call fresh regional elections in December.

Contrary to the Spanish government’s wishes, separatist parties regained a slim majority, keeping the conflict alive and rallying secessionists around the call to bring back Puigdemont.

Polls consistently show that most Catalans want the right to decide the region’s future, but are evenly divided over splitting from Spain.

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