Spain’s inability to form a new government since an inconclusive general election in December, leading King Felipe VI to call new elections in the coming days, is widely seen as a failure of the country’s political class.
But in the northeastern region of Catalonia, separatists have been making the most of Spain's political limbo.
For the Catalan premier, Carles Puigdemont, who took office on January 10th, the hiatus has been a godsend, allowing him to push ahead quietly with a plan to start breaking away from the Spanish state.
Puigdemont (53) only became premier as part of a last- gasp solution to Catalonia's own political impasse. After the Junts pel Sí (or Together for Yes) separatist coalition won a regional election in September, which it treated as a plebiscite on independence, it required the backing of the radical leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) in order to secure a majority. CUP refused to endorse then-regional premier Artur Mas and after a long stand-off he stepped aside for the relatively unknown Puigdemont.
Last week, as Catalonia celebrated the day of its patron saint, Puigdemont delivered a televised message that obliquely invoked the tensions that the independence project has generated.
“Saint Jordi helps us to defend Catalan language and culture, to make us heard and respected in the face of the fierce dragons – and there are many of them – which want to attack us,” he said.
The “fierce dragons” are part of Saint Jordi’s legend, but on this occasion they were widely interpreted as those who oppose Catalan secession, particularly the acting conservative government in Madrid.
But despite such fighting talk and complaints from unionists that Puigdemont is merely a puppet premier who is controlled by Mas, his background and short spell in office so far suggest he has a distinct governing style that could ease tensions between Catalonia and Madrid, despite the ongoing bid for independence.
Born in the Catalan province of Gerona, Puigdemont believed in an independent state from an early age. “I didn’t convert to separatism, because I was virtually born believing in independence,” he told reporters recently.
He was a teenager when the dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, sparking frenzied political debate in homes across Spain, including his own.
“In his house when he was a kid there were political discussions involving characters from the town, intellectually minded priests and others,” says Josep Riera Font, who has written a biography of Puigdemont.
“He heard them talking about what was happening in the country, about politics, and that’s when he got interested. By the age of 14 or 15 he had decided that the best thing for his country – that is, for Catalonia – was for it to be independent.”
A journalist by trade, Puigdemont worked his way up through Convergence, a right- leaning Catalan nationalist party that only recently started advocating independence under the confrontational leadership of Mas. In 2011, Puigdemont was elected mayor of Gerona.
As Catalan premier, Puigdemont says his two priorities are independence and the region’s social and economic challenges. He only expects to be in the post for a total of 18 months. During this time the independence movement will plan the legal preparations to take before holding constituent elections, drawing up a Catalan constitution and then staging a referendum on it, before declaring a new state.
Such a bold secessionist plan will be provocative, whoever ends up governing Spain after June's repeated general election. A recent opinion article about the Catalan leader in Madrid-based newspaper El Español was headlined: "Puigdemont, an advanced fascist."
But the current Catalan premier appears to be more of a consensus seeker than his predecessor, Mas, as was shown last week when he paid a visit to acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy in the capital.
"At the end of Mas's tenure there was almost a personal enmity aimed at him [on the part of the Spanish government]," says Rafael Nadal, a writer and journalist from Gerona who knows Puigdemont.
“They were asking ‘why is this man causing us so much trouble?’ But with Puigdemont they know from the start he’s pro-independence and yet he’s willing to talk, to negotiate.”
To the surprise of many, the Catalan and Spanish governments this week even signed off on an agreement on five technical issues, including child protection and the
Catalan Financial Institute
, avoiding the need to take them to the courts.
“People from Gerona tend to be very determined, but at the same time they have an almost conservative quality, in the sense of not wanting to cause a fuss,” says Nadal.
“If [Puigdemont] behaves like a native of Gerona, he’ll seek consensus, he’ll try and calm the tensions. But that doesn’t mean that he lacks convictions or that he doesn’t want to see things through to the end.”