BARCELONA, Spain - The fugitive leader of Catalonia's secessionist movement said Wednesday that he will repeat as his party's leading candidate in upcoming elections for the Spanish region while he fights extradition from Belgium.
Carles Puigdemont told El Punt-Avui television from Brussels that he is handpicking a list of candidates to run under him in Dec. 21 elections for Catalonia's regional parliament, which were called by Spain's national government after the region's legislators voted to declare independence.
He said that the list, running under the name "Together For Catalonia" (Junts pel Catalunya), will include members from his Democratic Party of Catalonia (PDeCAT) and some independents without a background in politics.
"I have told PDeCAT that I need to make a list that is more mine than of the party so the greatest number of people feel comfortable," Puigdemont said. "PDeCAT has accepted it and is working toward it."
The Democratic Party of Catalonia confirmed to The Associated Press that its national board decided Wednesday to accept Puigdemont's proposal to create his own list.
Puigdemont said he plans to run his campaign from Brussels, where he and four former Cabinet members are facing an extradition hearing that could send them back to Spain to face accusations of rebellion and sedition. A Belgian judge released them from custody after they turned themselves in more than a week ago under the condition that they remain in Belgium.
"I am excited to campaign, but with limitations," Puigdemont said. "I don't have the right to leave Belgium and obviously I won't."
Puigdemont is a wanted man since he fled Spain following a crackdown by authorities after Catalonia's parliament voted in favour of a declaration of independence Oct. 27. He has said he went to the European Union's capital because he didn't trust that he would be fairly treated by Spanish courts.
Puigdemont and the other four former ministers have their extradition hearing Friday. However, the entire extradition process could take months.
He and 13 other former Cabinet members face prison sentences of up to 30 years. Nine former members of his government remained in Spain and were sent to prison by a judge while the investigation proceeds.
Spain's government responded to the northeastern region's declaration of independence by firing Puigdemont's government, dissolving Catalonia's Parliament and calling snap elections that it hopes will lead to a victory by parties against independence.
Polls forecast a tight race between parties in favour of secession and those who want to preserve centuries-old ties with the rest of Spain. According to the polls, Puigdemont's party is poised to lose votes, while the pro-secession Republican Left is expected to get the biggest block of votes yet fall well short of an outright majority.
Puigdemont said he was disappointed that he failed to persuade the Republic Left party to join his coalition.
Catalan separatists claim a mandate for independence from the results of a referendum on secession held Oct. 1 despite a ban by Spain's top court, a boycott by parties against independence and its failure to meet international standards. Forty-three per cent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots in the face of police raids on polling places.
If Puigdemont is convicted, besides jail time he could be banned from holding public office.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has pledged to quash all attempts of a breakaway, citing the Spanish constitution's provision that the nation is "indivisible."
Earlier Wednesday, Rajoy expressed confidence his government could handle any outside attempts to tamper with the election in Catalonia after his government had said there were indications of cyber-meddling by foreigners. Rajoy declined to give details on what security measures Spain would take to prevent or counter electronic interference with the vote, but said "people will vote with complete liberty."
Spanish Defence Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal said Monday that "many actions" to mount a misinformation campaign to destabilize Catalonia had "come from Russian territory" and elsewhere in recent months. However, both Cospedal and Rajoy said Spain had no indication the Russian government was involved.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismissed insinuations of Russian meddling in Catalonia as unsubstantiated.
"We consider these accusations unfounded," Peskov said Wednesday, adding that Spain's concerns sounded like a "continuation of the hysteria in the U.S. and some other countries."
Associated Press writer Ciaran Giles reported this story from Madrid and AP writer Joseph Wilson reported in Barcelona. AP writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.