There’s a long history of governments in exile, from the leaders of Nazi-occupied countries that set up shop in London during World War II to the opposition Syrian Interim Government based in Turkey. But these were groups trying to overthrow their countries’ current leaders, not run the day-to-day business of their homelands. Nobody’s ever pulled off something like what Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is now attempting: governing a place without being physically present in it.
Puigdemont, leader of the separatist Catalan Democratic Party, fled to Belgium in October to avoid arrest on charges of rebellion following his government’s decision to unilaterally declare independence from Spain after a controversial referendum.
The Spanish government, which did not recognize the results of the vote, assumed direct control over the region and dissolved its government, calling for new elections. The Spanish government was betting that after the chaos of the past few months, voters in the politically divided region would elect anti-independence parties and end the dangerous standoff. That didn’t happen: Separatist parties again won a narrow majority in the Catalan Parliament.
On Tuesday, the victorious parties agreed to once again elect Puigdemont as regional president. The problem is if he sets foot in Spain, he will be arrested. Traditionally, the leader would appear in person in parliament present himself and his program for a vote. But Puigdemont’s backers say there’s no reason he can’t do that through a delegate or via Skype. But the issue isn’t just his swearing-in. Given that Spain is unlikely to drop the charges against Puigdemont any time soon, he’ll have to keep governing via Skype and email indefinitely.
His opponents, not surprisingly, find this ridiculous. “It’s evident that for governing Catalonia you have to be in Catalonia, you can’t do that via WhatsApp or as a hologram,” said Ines Arrimadas, leader of the anti-independence Ciutadans party.
Nowadays, political leaders can do a large percentage of their jobs without being present. In 2010, when Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was stranded in New York by the Icelandic volcano eruption, his government publicized the fact that the was continuing to do his job remotely on a just-introduced device called an iPad.
But governing is more than just communicating with colleagues or even giving speeches. Catalonia is a politically divided region facing its most serious political crisis in decades, a crisis that—whether or not you support independence—he’s largely responsible for creating. Those who are already skeptical of the risky course he’s put the region on are not likely to be mollified by a president on the run from the law who exists in his home region as only a spectral, digital presence.
Perhaps the government should invest in one of those telepresence robots Edward Snowden uses to get around.