In Catalonia, an ‘Accidental’ Leader of Unwavering Conviction

A former journalist, with a Beatles mop-top haircut, he was already calling for separation from Spain on the streets of Barcelona in the early 1980s, when secessionism was a marginal movement in Catalonia.

Still, in the interview, Mr. Puigdemont professed ambivalence about his current leadership role and politics in general. He still commutes from the city of Girona, with a population of only around 100,000, where he was mayor. He compares running the government headquarters in Barcelona to sitting in an electric chair.

Catalonia’s previous leader, Artur Mas, was fined and barred from public office for organizing a nonbinding independence ballot in 2014. But Mr. Mas was a late convert to the separatist cause.


Students rallied in support of Catalan independence in Barcelona on Thursday.

Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

If Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — who was already a government minister two decades ago — thought the comparatively green Mr. Puigdemont would be more pliable, that has not been the case.

Mr. Puigdemont says he is determined to have Catalans vote on Sunday. He also says he will leave Barcelona — and possibly politics — as soon as independence is assured, “to recover a certain lost normality.”

For now, nothing is normal, for Catalonia or for Spain.

The referendum on Sunday won’t take place in the normal voting conditions, if it comes off at all. With the backing of Spanish courts, Madrid is doing all it can to block the vote. The Spanish police have confiscated ballot papers and other election-related material and are under orders to keep polling stations closed.

Should the referendum be thwarted, Mr. Puigdemont is certain to shift the blame for Spain’s constitutional crisis more firmly onto Mr. Rajoy.

He has already accused the conservative prime minister…

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