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A fugitive Catalan separatist may hold the key to Spain’s government after an inconclusive election

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Nearly six years ago, the leader of Catalonia’s failed secession bid slipped secretly across the Spanish border to escape arrest and start a life as a self-styled political exile.

Now, Carles Puigdemont has the future of Spain’s government in his hands.

An inconclusive national election Sunday has left Spain in political limbo. No leader came close to an absolute majority or was left with a guaranteed path to forming a government in the 350-seat Parliament with 11 parties spread across the spectrum.

Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is closest to solving the puzzle after his Socialist party resisted what polls had incorrectly predicted would be a right-wing landslide. But his party and allies on the left are still a few seats short of an outright majority.

This is where Puigdemont comes into play. Puigdemont’s Junts (Together) party will hold seven seats, whose support — even in the form of an abstention instead of a “Yes” vote — could be enough to give Sánchez another four-year term.

Puigdemont, 60, threatened to break up the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy when he made a short-lived bid for Catalonia’s independence in October 2017, which was not recognized internationally and produced a swift crackdown by Spanish authorities.

Since installing himself in Waterloo, Belgium, he has been able to forge a near cult-like following among his hundreds of thousands of supporters who consider him a hero as well as a victim of what they say is Spain’s quest to quash their political movement. That has helped him beat the odds and keep his political career alive, becoming a European Parliament member in 2019 even though he is hundreds of miles from the country he represents.

His reputation as a cunning thorn-in-the-side of Spain has grown as he has wiggled out of one tight squeeze after another following extradition arrests in Germany and Sardinia. He convinced Belgian courts to refuse to send him back to Spain.

But the price of a Puigdemont compromise may be too high for Sánchez.

Junts’ goals are to force Spain to authorize a binding secession referendum and grant full amnesty for Puigdemont and what they say are thousands of others facing minor charges. Those were the demands his party laid out before election night, anticipating a scenario in which Junts could play kingmaker to Sánchez.

“We haven’t come this far to lower our demands. We are here to achieve them,” Junts president Laura Borràs said in Barcelona on Tuesday. “This is a key moment because the separatist movement and Junts can decide the government.”

Josep Rius, a spokesman for Junts, told The Associated Press by phone that Sánchez understands their demands.

“We are not surprised that he has nothing to offer so far, since we have been waiting to hear what his solution is to the political problem of Catalonia for years,” Rius said.

Sánchez has consistently rejected granting a referendum that could lead to Spain losing one of its wealthiest regions and abandoning millions who don’t want to live in another state. And that will not change now.

But Sánchez’s time in power has been defined in great part by his willingness to spend political capital to reduce tensions in Catalonia.

Sánchez pardoned nine cohorts of Puigdemont who did not flee in 2017 and had been convicted to long prison terms, and he eased laws on sedition and the misuse of public funds that lowered the potential punishments for Puigdemont and others.

So it is not unthinkable that he could help Puigdemont.

“This situation is a problem for the Socialists, but also an opportunity to end the deadlock,” Lluís Orriols, professor of political science at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said.

“(Junts) depends a lot on a charismatic leaders like Carles Puigdemont. His figure is pivotal in Junts, and Puigdemont’s problem with his likely imprisonment in Spain could play a key role in this negotiation.”

Puigdemont’s legal defense suffered a recent defeat when Europe’s high court ruled this month that the European Parliament did not violate Puigdemont’s rights when it stripped him of his immunity as one of its members, as requested by Spain. Puigdemont has appealed that decision, but if he loses his case, Spain would be closer to bringing him home to face trial and sending him to prison for six to 12 years for misusing public funds in the secession bid.

On Monday, Spain’s state prosecutor’s office asked the Spanish judge leading the Puigdemont investigation to order a new international arrest warrant.

“One day you are decisive in order to form a Spanish government, the next day Spain orders your arrest,” Puigdemont wrote on Twitter on hearing that he was still a wanted man.

If Sánchez and Puigdemont cannot reach an understanding, Spain is likely headed for a repeat election in the coming months.

Catalonia, a region proud of its own language and customs, has not only been a headache for Sánchez. It was part of his salvation on Sunday.

Sánchez’s Socialists won the most votes in Catalonia, sending 19 lawmakers to Madrid. Junts and other separatist parties lost ground.

While Sánchez did extremely well with unionists, he also convinced some separatist-minded voters that he was the best guarantee to stop Spain’s far-right Vox party, which is feared by many for its ultra-nationalist bent.

“At least they (Sánchez’ possible government) should give us something in return,” said Sergi Pons, a 46-year-old architect who normally votes for separatist parties but this time went for the Socialists. He hopes Sánchez stays in charge.

“If not, we will return to elections and that can lead to the right coming out stronger.”

Puigdemont and Junts have already lost their grip on Catalonia’s government, and the Socialists snatched control of the mayor’s office in Barcelona from the Junts candidate who had looked certain to take power. During his campaign, Sánchez felt confident enough to say: “Mr. Puigdemont is of the past. He was a problem for Spain. Today he is an anecdote.”

Now his Socialist party will face some very complicated negotiations with Puigdemont’s team.

Puigdemont is considered public enemy No. 1 by many Spaniards, so just dealing with him is politically toxic. And in addition to being fiscally conservative and having little common ground with leftist parties, Junts is prisoner of its own rhetoric as true hardline separatists who won’t accept watered-down deals.

For Oriol Bartomeus, professor of political science at Autonomous University of Barcelona, Sánchez may conclude that a new election is preferable to being held political hostage by a fugitive.

“It is unclear that Junts would gain something by refusing and forcing a repetition of the elections,” Bartomeus said. “In that case, Junts could lose all its influence in Spain and Puigdemont would have to accept that he will serve his full prison sentence.”

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Associated Press video journalist Renata Brito contributed to this report.

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