Rajoy vows to defeat separatists in election
Spain raises Russian meddling
MADRID, Nov 14, (Agencies): Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Tuesday he hopes to defeat separatists in next month’s Catalan election, which will be dominated by regional lawmakers’ independence drive, calling for a “massive” turnout by voters.
“We’re going to work so that independence groups don’t win,” Rajoy told Spanish radio.
The Catalan independence crisis has triggered alarm in Brussels as the European Union deals with the fallout of Brexit and more than 2,400 businesses have moved their legal headquarters out of the region as uncertainty persists.
Rajoy dismissed the government of Catalan exleader Carles Puigdemont last month over his independence bid, suspending the regional parliament and organising a new election.
The prime minister has been rallying support for his Popular Party (PP) in the December 21 election in Catalonia — a region that remains deeply divided over independence despite its parliament’s declaration.
The PP only managed to finish fifth in Catalonia’s 2015 election, which saw pro-separatist groups gain power in the region of 7.5 million people.
On Tuesday Rajoy issued “a call for massive participation” from voters on December 21 in the hope that parties in favour of keeping Catalonia part of Spain put in a strong showing.
Several former Catalan cabinet members are currently in jail over their role in agitating for independence, which is illegal under Spain’s constitution.
Rajoy said that there was no ban on detained officials contesting the regional vote but added that they “need to respect the law”.
“They can all run as candidates since they’ve not been declared ineligible” by a judge, Rajoy told COPE radio.
But he accused deposed Catalan officials of being “political delegitimised” after “tricking Catalan citizens” by claiming independence.
Puigdemont himself is in self-imposed exile in Brussels and has said he wants to run as a candidate next month.
With fallout from the crisis affecting his own PDeCAT party’s standing in polling, he had hoped to form a united separatist ticket with his former government ally, the leftwing ERC.
But the ERC said last week that it would not allow its candidates to run alongside PDeCAT hopefuls.
Puigdemont accuses Madrid of readying a “wave of repression” against separatists, but EU officials have staunchly backed Rajoy over the crisis.
Meanwhile, Catalonia’s deposed president said he might consider a solution to Spain’s political crisis that did not involve the region’s secession, appearing to soften the staunchly pro-independence stance that cost him his leadership last month.
In an interview with Belgian daily Le Soir, Carles Puigdemont was asked if a non-secessionist option was on the table to resolve a crisis triggered when Spain took over control of the region after its parliament declared independence on Oct. 27.
“I’m ready, and have always been ready, to accept the reality of another relationship with Spain ... It (another solution) is still possible,” Puigdemont said.
“I have, being pro-independence all my life, worked for 30 years to have another way of Catalonia being anchored to Spain,” he added, giving no details of what form such a relationship could take.
He posted a link to the interview, which was published on Monday, on his Twitter feed.
The former president is in self-imposed exile in Belgium after running an independence campaign that prompted authorities in Madrid to fire his cabinet, dissolve the regional parliament and call new elections for December.
Puigdemont, who had previously insisted the independence declaration should form the basis of any political negotiations with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, is under conditional release after an international arrest warrant was served against him.
He and four other former members of the Catalan government with him in Belgium face charges of rebellion and sedition.
Rajoy has said he was open to talks with Catalan leaders on resolving Spain’s worst political crisis since its return to democracy four decades ago, but only within a legal framework and after the independence drive was dropped as a condition.
In an interview with German newspaper Handelsblatt published on Monday, Rajoy said the position of the former Catalan leaders focused on the independence vote and gave little room beyond that for debate.
Meanwhile, Spain on Monday raised the issue of “disinformation and manipulation” emanating from Russia during the Catalan independence crisis, at a meeting of EU foreign and defence ministers.
Madrid had said on Friday it was concerned by Russian social media activity on Catalonia, after misleading reports and images shared widely online helped fuel the standoff triggered by the banned October 1 independence referendum.
It is just the latest issue link d to Russian interference through social media.
There have also been accusations of Russian involvement in the election of US President Donald Trump and in the campaign ahead of Britain’s Brexit vote.
EU ministers are now expected to increase resources for countering Russian disinformation campaigns.
“I will raise the question of how misinformation and manipulation around the referendum and subsequent events in Catalonia have developed,” Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said.
“These situations of disinformation, of manipulation arise not only on our eastern flank but in other areas.”
Spain’s Defence Minister Dolores de Cospedal said it was clear that a lot the messaging on social media around the Catalan crisis came from Russian territory, though a definitive link to the government has yet to be proved.
“It is important that we know that there are certain entities, which may be public or private, that try to interfere in national politics, that try to affect and create unstable situations in Europe,” De Cospedal said.
“We have the obligation to declare openly, that public opinion knows about it and to fight against it.”