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Puigdemont an unknown entity in Spain until secession drive

MADRID (AP) — Carles Puigdemont, the bespectacled politician heading the Catalan regional government's drive for secession from Spain, was an unknown entity for most Spaniards until a year ago. Now, as he pledges to hold an Oct. 1 referendum deemed illegal by Spain, he's a household name across the country, and probably not a popular one.

Puigdemont is a former journalist who has a long record of links to the independence movement, unlike many in his conservative Catalan European Democratic Party. Many of its members turned outwardly pro-secession only about five years ago.

But the 54-year-old Puigdemont, who was born in the town of Amer in the heart of pro-independence territory north of Barcelona, was never elected by popular vote for the job he holds. Instead, he became the independence movement's most visible proponent almost by accident.

Previous regional president Artur Mas had to hand-pick him as successor in a desperate attempt to clinch the parliamentary support of the far-left anti-capitalists in the CUP party and keep the secession push on the rails.

Mas' Together for Yes coalition and the CUP radicals won a slim majority of seats with less than 50 percent of the votes in 2015 elections. But CUP demanded the head of Mas, who they linked with the regional corruption scandals, in exchange for its support. A last-minute offer of Puigdemont as a replacement convinced the CUP to stay on board thanks to his pro-secession credentials.

At the beginning he was dismissed by many in Spain as Mas' puppet and not tipped to last long. But Puigdemont has proven to be a formidable leader in his own right, managing to keep together the ramshackle coalition of conservatives, leftists and anti-establishment radicals that shore up his government and its push for independence.

His party initially promised independence by 2017, but Puigdemont later conceded that it might take longer. Along the way he was shown himself willing to replace Cabinet ministers viewed as not willing to go the whole way for independence.

"The welfare of Catalonia is only possible outside of Spain," he told The Associated Press in an interview last year. But the affable and constantly smiling, amateur rock guitarist has also made it clear he doesn't intend staying in office or standing for election.

Once he manages to get the independence show up and running, he will step down. His commitment is solid, however and, as he told reporters last year, he is willing go to jail for the cause. So far, he has managed to avoid that.

But besides his supporters in the pro-independence camp, Puigdemont has failed big-time to win any friends outside of Catalonia or convince any country or international body of his argument. Within Spain, he claims to be open to dialogue with Madrid but insists the vote is nonnegotiable, thus spoiling any chance of real talks with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Critics accuse him and his government of steam-rolling in pro-independence laws with little respect for parliamentary debate or opposition party opinion. In less than 48 hours this month, with minimum debate and ignoring the advice of parliamentary legal advisers, Puigdemont's acolytes pushed through two key laws to call the referendum and establish guidelines for Catalonia's transition to independence.

Spanish parties have more than once labeled his government as authoritarian. Prior to replacing Mas, Puigdemont was mayor of Girona for five years. He studied philology and went on to work as a journalist for pro-independence media, serving as chief editor at El Punt and the English-language newspaper Catalonia Today, as well as being director of the Catalan News Agency.

He has been active in politics since 2006 when he was elected a provincial deputy for Convergence and Union party that preceded his current party. Between 2015 and 2016, he was president of Catalonia's Association of Municipalities for Independence.

A Barcelona soccer supporter with a distinctive mop-like hair style, Puigdemont is married to Romanian journalist Marcela Topor and has two daughters.

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