Puigdemont supporters in Belgium celebrate 'bitter' win
Despite the chants of "president" that greeted Carles Puigdemont in Brussels as Catalonia's regional election results rolled in Thursday night, independence supporters warned against triumphalism.
The few dozen people gathered in a conference centre to watch the results, showing that separatist parties were on course to regain a parliamentary majority, were guarded about the future.
"It's a bitter victory," said Michel Vila, a 70-year-old retired engineer who has lived in Belgium for the past three decades.
"The electoral campaign was totally manipulated, because the two candidates for the main parties were in exile here and the other was in prison. As an independence supporter, I would say we resisted well."
"But it's a fact that the pro-independence vote didn't pass 48 percent."
As for whether there would now be a return to Spain for Puigdemont -- who fled to Belgium in October to avoid charges of sedition and to drum up support for his cause from the EU -- "that we don't know", he said.
Where tens of thousands of Catalan independence supporters marched through Brussels a few weeks ago, the turnout was far more modest at Thursday's results event.
There were around 50 Catalans and 35 Flemish independence supporters whose party has backed them -- but they were outnumbered by journalists.
Puigdemont struck a defiant tone as he addressed his fans, calling the result a "slap" for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
"This is a result which no one can dispute," Puigdemont told supporters, as they chanted "president, president".
- 'Cracking open the cava' -
He warned however that the likelihood of future rows with Madrid "might stop us cracking open the cava yet" -- referring to the sparkling white wine produced in Catalonia.
Maria Arbos, 57, a retired tourism worker who is from Catalonia but lives near Brussels, said she had mixed emotions.
"We are happy because we got a majority. But we would rather Ciudadanos (pro-union with Spain party) was not been the biggest party because then the Spanish newspapers will say they won," she said.
"But they haven't won. We have the majority."
Arbos called on Europe -- which said Thursday it would not change its view that the matter was an internal one for Spain -- to help resolve the Catalan question.
"Europe would do well to listen to us, because there is a problem that is not resolved," she said, adding that Puigdemont "is our president with these results."
She accused Spain of being a "dictatorship" as key separatist leaders remained in jail, adding "it's just not right."
Puigdemont was axed as president of Catalonia after holding an independence referendum that Madrid deemed illegal.
He and four former ministers then fled to Belgium to avoid charges of rebellion and sedition. Spain dropped a European arrest warrant for them earlier this month but they still face arrest if they return to their homeland.
Supporter Marina Sanchez made a similar comparison to authoritarian rule.
"It's really unique in Europe to have a president and a future president in exile, and another in exile. It's like Turkey," she said.
© 2017 AFP