The revelation that the self-styled godfather of Catalan nationalism, Jordi Pujol, hid a fortune in tax havens for decades has thrown the region's governing party into turmoil and threatened to undermine its campaign for independence from Spain.
Pujol (84), who governed Catalonia for 23 years as leader of the Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya party, issued a statement on July 25th in which he admitted he had only just declared to tax authorities an inheritance he received in 1980.
"I admit all this with much pain, due to what it means for me and my family," Mr Pujol said, adding that media speculation about his finances had prompted the move. El Mundo newspaper had published reports that Mr Pujol had millions of euros in bank accounts in Andorra and Switzerland.
Since the confession, Mr Pujol has lain low. Last Thursday he spoke to the media for the first time since the scandal broke, from his family home in the Pyrenees, saying he was willing to co-operate with the authorities regarding his tax fraud. He has resigned from the honorary positions he held within the party he previously dominated.
Mr Pujol was a colourful politician whose tenure from 1980 to 2003 saw him win six elections in a row. He was both a wily negotiator with the central government in
and a charismatic, seemingly ubiquitous, presence in his native region.
In 1993, in an episode that was typical of his governing style, he confronted a group of protesters in Barcelona who opposed a new water service tariff. He grabbed a megaphone and bellowed at them: “Taxes must be paid!”
As leader of the centre-right, nationalist Convergència during the early years of Spain’s democratic era, Mr Pujol was influential in forging a modern Catalan identity and fuelling the clamour for increased autonomy from Madrid.
His fall from grace is therefore hugely significant.
Andreu Mas-Colell, responsible for economic affairs in the Catalan regional administration, admitted that Mr Pujol’s revelation was “a heavy blow that will have repercussions of all kinds”.
The credibility of Convergència and its CiU coalition is likely to be heavily affected, with the region's current premier, Artur Mas, a political protege of Mr Pujol. Prior to the latter's revelation, CiU had already lost ground in polls to more stridently pro-independence parties.
Mr Mas has been the figurehead of a push for separation from Spain, scheduling a referendum on the issue for November 9th, which the central government deems illegal.
The referendum standoff has threatened to become a major political crisis, with Mr Mas and prime minister Mariano Rajoy failing to resolve their differences in a rare meeting at the end of July.
Mr Mas and others who campaign for an independent Catalonia claim the northeastern region pays out far more in taxes to the state than it receives in investment. Critics say Mr Pujol has made a mockery of that argument.
"Saying that Catalonia is stripped of everything by the Spanish state is a fallacy that is beginning to be debunked," said María Dolores de Cospedal, deputy leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP) which governs Spain. "And obviously Mr Pujol's confession helps in that sense."
Mr Mas, meanwhile, has sought to put distance between his disgraced former mentor and the referendum plan, saying that “the strength of a country goes way beyond personal behaviour, however important those persons may be.”
Several members of the Pujol family have been the targets of corruption inquiries in recent months. The former politician’s son, Oriol, is an official suspect in an investigation into an allegedly fraudulent car maintenance scam.