TODAY’S Catalan election is unlikely to produce a clear winner or straightforward governing majority. Yet in a fragmented field, exiled pro-independence leader Carles Puigdemont has the momentum.

Since Puigdemont announced his candidacy in late March, his centre-right Junts has leap-frogged its main pro-independence rival ERC (or Catalan Left Republicans) from third to second place in the polls. In the final week of the campaign, it has also closed in on the unionist Socialist Party, whose lead has been reduced to between four and six seats according to the latest polling.

Seven years ago, Puigdemont (below) was forced to flee Catalunya so as to avoid arrest in the wake of a wildcat independence referendum. Now, Junts is framing the election as a historic opportunity to restore the ex-premier to office. An amnesty law negotiated between the two major nationalist parties and the Spanish government is set to come into effect only weeks after the snap election, thus raising the prospect of his return from exile in time to be sworn in.

The National: Carles Puigdemont threatened to topple the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez if progress isn't made on independence

“Taking back the presidency is of national importance, not simply a party-political matter,” insisted Puigdemont before more than 3000 supporters at a rally close to the Spanish-French border on May 4.

The emotional appeal of “correcting this historic wrong” is visceral for many independence supporters, even those well beyond Junts’ right-leaning base. Yet it is also a message which elides certain ambiguities.

READ MORE: David Pratt: Gaza fallout is as much diplomatic as humanitarian

First is the fact that Catalan independence as an issue has been largely absent from the campaign. The possibility of Puigdemont’s return has been accompanied not by promises of an imminent new referendum but rather of negotiating greater regional autonomy within the Spanish state.

Second, leading Spanish judges’ strict opposition to the amnesty law could still complicate a triumphant homecoming for Puigdemont. Indeed, in March, he was indicted as a formal suspect in a highly controversial terrorism investigation – a case right-wing appointed judges seem intent on using to test the legal limits of the amnesty.


IN this respect, while Junts and centre-left ERC have gained greater leverage in Madrid since last July’s inconclusive Spanish general election, both parties and the wider independence movement have also been subject to renewed legal attacks from a politicised judiciary.

Holding the balance of power in the Spanish parliament has enabled the two Catalan parties to successfully negotiate one of the central demands of the independence movement since 2017 – an amnesty for those caught up in the judicial crackdown after the disputed referendum. Potentially as many as 1400 Catalan politicians, activists and protesters who have been convicted of offences, or are still facing charges, could benefit in the coming months.

During the election campaign, Junts and ERC have also pledged to secure further concessions from Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez (below) on regional control over tax collection and the management of Catalunya’s commuter railway network

The National: BARCELONA CATALONIA, SPAIN - MAY 10: Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks during a PSC rally, at Pavello Vall d'Hebron, on 10 May, 2024 in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. This is the last PSC rally in the electoral campaign for the Catalan elections on.

Puigdemont, in particular, has positioned himself as the only leader capable of “saying no to Sánchez” while repeatedly suggesting ERC’s closer working relationship with the Socialists risks leaving it subordinate to the Spanish prime minister’s agenda.


YET the new centrality of pro-independence forces to the governing arrangement in Spain has provoked a backlash not just from right-wing Spanish politicians but also from many of the country’s top magistrates. The largest association of judges in the country went so far as to denounce the amnesty law as “the beginning of the end of democracy” in Spain.

As Sánchez was sworn in for a new term last November, the country’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, reopened a four-year-old investigation into “low-grade terrorism”

that related to the mass occupation of Barcelona airport by thousands of pro-independence activists in 2019. It ruled that by “producing a threat to national and international air security”, the clashes between protesters and police went beyond simple public order offences.

The National: BARCELONA CATALONIA, SPAIN - MARCH 14: The president of Omnium Cultural, Xavier Antich, appears in the vicinity of the High Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC) where the Minister of Culture has gone to testify as investigated for the preparations of the

“This is clearly politically motivated,” president of NGO Òmnium Cultural Xavier Antich (above) insists. He argues that the use of “far-fetched terrorism charges” was an attempt to “undermine the negotiations for the amnesty” before Christmas and that now they could potentially “be used as an excuse to bypass it”.

El País’s editorial described the Supreme Court’s justification for indicting Puigdemont in the case (for his supposed co-ordinating role of the protest) as “at the very least, polemical” and “provoking profound legal uncertainty”.

Only terrorism cases with serious human rights violations are meant to be excluded from the amnesty. But Antich is “sceptical about whether those accused of terrorism [12 people in total] will benefit from the law and [he] foresees all kinds of legal scenarios”.

Catalan journalist Guillem Martínez voices similar concerns, claiming that “it is difficult to foresee Puigdemont’s future [legal position]” as it depends on how far certain judges are willing to go “to bring down the [Sánchez] government”.


THE fact that snap early elections were called before the amnesty came into effect has clouded the issue further. Pledging to return for the parliamentary session to elect a new premier in June, Puigdemont insisted last Tuesday that he was “not afraid of being arrested, even though I know it may occur”.

The National: SANT BOI DE LLOBREGAT, BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 02: PSC candidate Salvador Illa speaks during a PSC rally on May 2 in Sant Boi de Llobregat, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Sanchez is in Barcelona and just like yesterday he went to the PSC stand at the April

It also remains far from clear which candidate will be able to secure the new parliament’s backing to form a government. The election has turned into a two-horse race between Puigdemont and the Socialists’ Salvador Illa (above). But according to polling, both will struggle to cobble together the necessary support to be sworn in.

The existing pro-independence majority in parliament looks under threat. Yet even if nationalist parties win enough seats to govern, Puigdemont will need to convince the far-left CUP to back him, as it did at the height of the push for independence. Alternatively, it has been suggested the Socialists could abstain in a vote on Puigdemont’s premiership so as to ensure Junts’ future co-operation in the Spanish parliament.

On the streets of Barcelona, election posters depict Puigdemont in the backseat of a car on what is meant to be his return journey to Catalunya. It projects an image of a national statesman ready to lead on his homecoming.

Tonight, the prospects for such a return will become clearer. But what remains up in the air is the next move from a judiciary who view themselves as the guardians of the national unity of Spain.