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Puigdemont The ousted Catalan president who scored a comeback

Catalonia's ousted separatist leader Carles Puigdemont saw his independence drive vindicated after he led the separatist bloc to a big win in a crucial election on Thursday from exile in Belgium.

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A visionary to some and an opportunistic populist to others, deposed Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont sought exile in Belgium following the Catalan parliament's independence declaration on October 27 play

A visionary to some and an opportunistic populist to others, deposed Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont sought exile in Belgium following the Catalan parliament's independence declaration on October 27

(AFP)

Catalonia's ousted separatist leader Carles Puigdemont saw his independence drive vindicated after he led the separatist bloc to a big win in a crucial election on Thursday from exile in Belgium.

"The Spanish state has been defeated," he told supporters in Brussels after his Together for Catalonia list defied expectations to be the most voted for separatist party in the Catalan regional election, ahead of the leftist ERC.

While the pro-unity Ciudadanos party won the most seats, Puigdemont may be able to return to power with the support of the ERC and the hard-left CUP. The three separatist parties together won 70 seats in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.

It is unclear, however, whether he will return from self-imposed exile in Belgium, raising the question of how he might govern if not.

Puigdemont has dreamed since childhood of independence from Spain.

A visionary to some and an opportunistic populist to others, Puigdemont left to Belgium following the Catalan parliament's independence declaration on October 27.

Can he govern?

After the declaration, the Spanish government stripped Catalonia of its prized autonomy and sacked the regional government -- led by Puigdemont -- and its parliament.

The judiciary meanwhile opened probes into several of the separatist movement's leaders, and Puigdemont faces arrest should he return to Spain, where he is wanted on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.

But that did not stop him from running for the presidency in Catalonia's snap regional polls on Thursday.

Defying the odds, the 54-year-old former journalist with a shaggy brown mop of hair rallied supporters in the only way he could -- via videolink.

And while it is unclear how he could be sworn in, he has vowed to return if he secures a victory.

Independence 'in his blood'

In a biography published in 2016, Carles Porta, a journalist and friend of Puigdemont, describes him as an "honest and resilient" man, a dyed-in-the-wool partisan of independence.

"He has this quality (or this flaw): he's stubborn," Porta wrote.

Puigdemont's destiny changed in January 2016 when he was selected to lead a coalition of separatist parties which had won a majority of regional parliament seats, with a mandate to pursue independence.

Mayor of the city of Girona since 2001 and a lawmaker in the regional parliament, Puigdemont replaced Artur Mas as the Catalan president, becoming the Spanish government's public enemy number one.

He does though share one thing in common with Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy: both suffered serious car accidents when they were younger.

Rajoy has his scars hidden under his beard, Puigdemont on his forehead, under his hair.

'Flair for showmanship'

Puigdemont was born in Amer, a small mountain village in Catalonia of 2,200 people, on December 29, 1962, the second of eight siblings.

The son and grandson of bakers, he was just nine when he was sent to boarding school and "learnt to be a fighter", Porta says.

He was 13 when Spain's dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975.

Hugely attached to the Catalan language and passionate about history, the teenager would forever remember Franco's severe repression of the region.

In 1980, he joined Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya, the conservative and nationalist party which became the Catalan European Democratic Party in 2016.

Hired in 1982 by the nationalist newspaper El Punt Avui, he rose up through the ranks and became editor, combining journalism with activism.

At the time, pro-independence Catalans were still a minority.

In the following years, he sought to widen support for independence, always by peaceful means, inspired by India's icon, Mahatma Gandhi.

At ease with social media, he also speaks French, English and Romanian -- his wife Marcela Topor comes from Romania.

For political analyst Joan Botella, "Puigdemont believes he has been called by destiny to take Catalans to the promised land, and his entourage is very unpredictable."

But "he doesn't at all appear to be a demented zealot as described by Madrid".

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