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Spain PM threatens to extend direct rule over Catalonia

BARCELONA, Spain >> Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain threatened today to prolong his government’s direct rule over Catalonia if separatists lawmakers try to allow Carles Puigdemont to run the region from exile.

Rajoy ousted Puidgemont and his government in October for leading Catalonia’s drive to break from Spain and called new elections in hopes of a change of leadership.

The election in December did not yield the result Rajoy had hoped for, however, with separatist parties winning 47.5 percent of the vote, which was sufficient to keep their parliamentary majority.

Puidgemont now appears poised to become Catalonia’s leader once again, despite having fled to Belgium to avoid prosecution in Spain, possibly for sedition and rebellion.

Speaking before officials of his own Popular Party, Rajoy described as “absurd” the separatist plan to allow “a fugitive” to take office by videoconference, or by having another lawmaker read Puidgemont’s acceptance speech on his behalf.

“To be sworn in, you have to do so physically,” Rajoy said. “Realism and common sense should prevail.”

Rajoy’s warning was clearly an attempt to add to the already heavy pressures on Catalonia’s separatist lawmakers, a fractious group who are divided over how to revive their failed independence drive.

The separatists know that “any benevolent interpretation of the rules to favor Puigdemont could open the door for a ruling by the constitutional court, which could then block everything,” said Pablo Simón, a professor of politics at the Carlos III University in Madrid.

On the other hand, he added, “if it’s not Puidgemont, then who is the alternative?”

Indeed, the fragile parliamentary majority the separatists won in December is further tested by the fact that eight of their 70 elected lawmakers are either in jail in Madrid or have joined Puigdemont in Belgium.

Oriol Junqueras, former deputy leader of Catalonia, is among the jailed politicians who have been denied bail by Spain’s judiciary.

Rajoy’s tough stance underscored the larger quandary for Catalonia and its deadlock with Spain, which now threatens to fester indefinitely. Later Monday, legal experts of the Catalan parliament backed Rajoy’s position, warning that Puigdemont could not take office remotely without breaching the assembly’s own rules.

The region’s aspirations for independence have ebbed and flowed for generations. In recent years, those appeals were fueled by grievances that Spain was siphoning off the wealth of the prosperous northeastern region.

Nevertheless, as Rajoy was speaking, a court in Barcelona found the former governing party of Catalonia guilty of taking bribes worth about 6.6 million euros while awarding building contracts to renovate one of the city’s most famous concert halls, the Palau de la Música. Most of the contracts were awarded to Ferrovial, one of Spain’s main construction companies.

The former treasurer of the party, called Convergence, Daniel Osàcar, was sentenced to four years and five months in prison, while a dozen former officials and consultants who worked for the concert hall also received prison sentences.

Félix Millet, who created and ran the concert hall’s foundation, was sentenced to almost 10 years in prison and fined 4.1 million euros for embezzling public money.

Overall, the court found that 23.7 million euros of public money was embezzled during the decade from 1999-2009.

The case originated during the financial crisis that set off Catalonia’s latest independence drive. The judgment is now certain to be used by unionists who argue that Catalonia’s own leadership has done at least as good a job as Madrid has at siphoning off the region’s wealth, and that separation is no solution.

The Convergence party was founded by Jordi Pujol after Spain’s return to democracy and Pujol then governed Catalonia for more than two decades, from 1980-2003.

His successor as party leader, Artur Mas, embraced the independence drive in 2012, after a dispute with Rajoy over whether the wealthy region of Catalonia should gain better fiscal treatment in a Spanish tax system that redistributes money to the poorer regions from the richer ones.

Today, Mas defended his party, as well as his former party treasurer, who is among those appealing the sentences. He argued that his party, which was eventually rebranded, had already paid a high price for its corruption links and should not face further prosecution.

“What more political responsibilities can there be, when the party itself has disappeared?” he asked.

In Madrid, Rajoy is also under increased pressure, after calling a snap election in Catalonia that yielded another separatist victory and instead sank his own Popular Party, which came in last.

Rajoy acknowledged today that his party had made mistakes. But he defended his own handling of Catalonia, saying that he had taken decisions that were “good for the country, if sometimes not for the Popular Party.”

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