• Bloomberg


As Spain seized control of Catalonia’s government, the independence movement was left leaderless and struggling for a way forward, with grass-roots supporters enraged by the betrayal of their cause.

Carles Puigdemont, ousted by the government in Madrid after the region declared independence, abandoned Catalonia for Belgium without warning his party’s senior members, according to a party official. He left them no instructions on the way ahead, and they met Monday without him.

Party leaders understand that Puigdemont — who faces rebellion charges that could see him put in jail for 30 years — plans to seek asylum in Belgium. He will form a government in exile while others stay behind to fight an election on Dec. 21, the official said. Paul Bekaert, a Belgian lawyer, said in a phone interview that he’s representing Puigdemont, who will make a statement Tuesday. His spokesman declined to comment.

While a handful of ousted officials went to work Monday in a show of defiance, Puigdemont — who had long said he would go to jail for the cause — was nowhere to be seen. Madrid cemented its control without force or even much protest, just three days after the region’s parliament declared Catalonia a breakaway republic.

Catalonia — and Spain — will now have to work to undo the damage to the country’s economic powerhouse: the region’s output accounts for about a fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product and tax revenue. More than 1,000 companies moved their headquarters out of the wealthy northeastern region fearing the havoc that an independence push would wreak. Spanish markets rose Monday as Madrid got the upper hand.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy played a trump card by calling elections, forcing the separatists to choose between taking part and acknowledging that the breakaway republic declared last Friday is a fiction or boycotting the vote and becoming irrelevant.

Puigdemont, meanwhile, has squandered the momentum built up by the illegal referendum on Oct. 1. He missed his first opportunity to declare independence. Then, after passing the baton to parliament to do it, the leadership melted away at the weekend, leaving supporters baffled.

That paved the way for pro-unity forces to take the initiative. Hundreds of thousands of unionist demonstrators flooded the streets of Barcelona as rebel leaders stayed home. A poll Monday gave further support to Rajoy’s strategy: just 34 percent of Catalans want to break away.

“It’s really astonishing seeing Puigdemont heading to Brussels, showing minimal signs of resistance,” said Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Carlos III University in Madrid. “Rajoy broke the pro-independence camp’s strategy, and now they are forced to pick candidates and rebuild a narrative in a short period of time — just as the pro-constitution camp is more mobilized than ever before.”

Grass-roots activists who drove the push for independence feel betrayed by their political leaders, according to a member of the organization known as the Catalan National Assembly, who declined to be named.

Members of the movement who were being told until Friday to keep up pressure and defend the republic were disappointed that the regional government’s ousted leaders did little over the weekend to stake their claim. Unless Puigdemont “pulls a rabbit of the hat,” it will be hard to revive the movement, he said.

Just three weeks ago, members of the national police were ready to arrest Puigdemont at the regional parliament if he followed through on a pledge to declare independence. Thousands of police were stationed in a ship at Barcelona’s port and the stakes were high.

But he stepped back from the brink, or in the eyes of the independence movement, lost his nerve. He had come to power on a pledge to seek independence and was propped up in parliament by radical anarchist-leaning separatists.

Rajoy bided his time, seeking allies in Madrid who would back his crackdown on Catalonia. His government was initially criticized after images of police officers beating voters went around the world and his strategy has since become more measured. Last week, with support from other parties in Madrid, he used the most potent tools available to him, firing Puigdemont, seizing the government and dissolving the Catalan parliament.

Now government workers are among those left wondering about their future.

Just one example are those representing Catalonia in the network of diplomatic offices the regional government has set up from Berlin to Washington. They were given little information about their fate, according to someone who works at one of the quasi-embassies.

An email told them they were now on holiday, pending their official dismissal, without further explanation.

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