Carlos Puigdemont pulls out of Catalan presidential race

Ex-leader dropped a political bombshell, announcing that he is withdrawing his bid to get back his old job

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 07, 2018 Exiled former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont poses in front of a Catalan flag during a photo session in Brussels on February 7, 2018. 
Puigdemont announced on March 1, 2018 he abandons the bid to be reappointed as Catalan leader. / AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel DUNAND

Catalonia’s fugitive ex-leader dropped a political bombshell Thursday, unexpectedly announcing that he is temporarily withdrawing his bid to get back his old job as president of the independence-minded northeastern Spanish region.

Carles Puigdemont said in a video message posted from Brussels, where he fled to escape arrest in Spain, that he is standing aside so the Catalan parliament can find another candidate to form a regional government that presses ahead with deadlocked efforts to win independence.

Mr Puigdemont is a charismatic leader of the independence movement and is the preferred candidate of most Catalan secessionists to head the regional government. By escaping to Belgium, he was widely seen in Catalonia as having outsmarted the national government, which has repeatedly blocked the region’s secession attempts and used the courts and police to crack down on separatists.

Catalonia’s future has been deadlocked since defiant secessionists gained a slim majority in the Catalan parliament in December’s regional election.

Separatist parties in the regional parliament insisted earlier Thursday that Puigdemont is their legitimate leader despite a ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court that he can’t take office because he is not in Spain.

Puigdemont suggested the Catalan parliament pick Jordi Sanchez, a political ally in the secession bid who is currently in jail in Madrid while a court mulls formal charges against him, as president.

But the Spanish government says it will not allow anybody facing legal action over secession to become Catalan president, so Puigdemont’s announcement did little to increase the chances of ending the stalemate.

The confrontation in recent months prompted the national government to impose direct rule over Catalonia from Madrid.

The Supreme Court is looking into whether two dozen Catalan separatists — including Sanchez — should be charged for rebellion and sedition, which can be punished with decades in prison.