Catalonia's exiled leader drops bid to be president again

He's nominated a jailed activist to replace him

Catalonia’s exiled separatist leader Carles Puigdemont announced Thursday that he was dropping his bid to be reappointed president of the restive Spanish region, in a bid to find a way out of a political impasse. But the separatist movement isn’t stopping.

Puigdemont has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium since October. The former Catalan president fled Spain after the central government in Madrid dismissed him, with the rest of the regional government, for unilaterally declaring independence.

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Madrid ordered fresh regional elections in Catalonia in December in a bid to defuse the crisis. But pro-independence parties won a majority, and nominated Puigdemont as their only candidate to be Catalonia’s president, despite him facing arrest on charges including rebellion and sedition the moment he returned to Spanish soil.

Puigdemont had initially tried to argue he could fulfill the role remotely from Belgium. But on Thursday, he announced he was dropping his bid, in an attempt to offer a way out of the deadlock.

“I will not put myself forward as candidate to be appointed regional president,” the 55-year-old said in Catalan in a video posted to Twitter, calling for a new candidate to be chosen as soon as possible from Catalonia's separatist bloc.

Madrid welcomed the move, which creates an opening for Catalonia to have a functioning regional government again, and a potential way forward out of Spain’s biggest political crisis since the death of military dictator Francisco Franco 1975.

But that hinges in no small part on who the Catalan separatist bloc selects as its next candidate. Puigdemont said that his Together for Catalonia party, one of the groups in the bloc, was supporting Catalan pro-independence activist Jordi Sanchez for the role instead – a nomination that would be just as fraught as his own. Sanchez is one of a number of pro-independence politicians currently being held in a Madrid jail on charges of sedition.

“It is a great honour and enormous responsibility to be able to represent the people of Catalonia,” Sanchez’s Twitter account tweeted Thursday.

Puigdemont vowed in a separate video statement Thursday that the independence movement would prevail. “We will achieve independence for the people we represent,” he said. “That is our mandate and we will fulfill it.” He said his lawyers had appealed to the United Nations’ human rights committee, accusing the Spanish authorities of violating Catalonia's right to self-determination by criminalizing the independence movement in a repressive crackdown.

The ongoing political chaos appears to be hurting support for the independence movement. A survey published by the Catalan Center for Opinion Studies suggested that 53 percent of Catalans were now against secession, with only 40.8 percent in favor – down from 48.7 percent in October.