Catalan lawmakers step closer to picking new regional leader

Barcelona (AFP) –


Catalonia's parliament will start debating Saturday on whether to appoint staunch independence supporter Quim Torra as regional president, after deposed leader Carles Puigdemont stepped aside from the running.

This will be the first major step forward in forming a regional government after months of political limbo following a failed independence bid by Catalonia's separatist leaders last October.

Torra, a 55-year-old father-of-three, is a dyed-in-the-wool independence advocate cut from the same cloth as Puigdemont, who has tasked him with continuing his fight with Spain's central government to achieve independence.

After holding talks with different parties, Catalan parliamentary speaker Roger Torrent officially proposed Torra as the presidential candidate and called a session on Saturday at midday, the regional assembly said Friday in a statement.

Lawmakers will vote on his candidacy at the end of the debate.

Torra needs an absolute majority to get through, and if he doesn't, he will get another opportunity in a second round, likely to take place on Monday, where he will only need a simple majority.

There are currently 70 lawmakers in the regional parliament who are pro-independence, against 65 who aren't.

But four of the 70 are from the radical anti-capitalist, separatist CUP party which has said it will vote for Puigdemont -- and no one else.

If they decide to abstain, he will scrape through in the second round with a simple majority. But if they vote against, he won't succeed.

- Staunchly pro-independence -

Catalonia has been in political limbo since Spain's conservative central government imposed direct rule on the semi-autonomous region after it unilaterally declared independence on October 27.

The declaration came just weeks after Catalan separatist authorities held a referendum despite a court ban, which was marred by police violence as security forces tried to stop people from voting.

On October 27, Madrid sacked Puigdemont and his entire cabinet, and called regional elections in December which separatist parties won again.

But since then, every candidate picked by the separatist camp has fallen flat.

Puigdemont is abroad in self-exile and faces jail if he returns, while other candidates such as civic leader Jordi Sanchez are in prison, charged with rebellion for their role in the independence drive.

Fresh polls will be triggered if a new leader is not elected by May 22.

Torra is a newcomer to politics.

After a long career with the Swiss insurance firm Winterthur, Torra used a severance package to set up a publishing house in 2008.

There he specialised in reviving texts by Catalan journalists from the civil war and Francisco Franco's dictatorship, which severely repressed Catalonia among other regions.

Until 2015 he also managed a cultural centre in Barcelona's El Born district which became notorious for pushing for independence.

- Puigdemont pulls the strings -

Puigdemont insists the situation is "temporary," implying that Torra may one day make way for him.

As such, Ines Arrimadas, the Catalan head of centre-right, anti-independence party Ciudadanos, labelled him Puigdemont's "puppet" on Friday.

"He is the most radical that Puigdemont could find and the only one who voluntarily accepted to be the puppet of Mr. Puigdemont," she told reporters.

Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium just days after being sacked by Madrid, was detained in Germany in March after Spain issued a European arrest warrant against him.

Madrid wants to extradite him to Spain to try him on charges of rebellion -- which carries up to 30 years in prison -- and misuse of public funds for his role in the secession drive.

But a German court rejected extraditing him on that charge, judging that rebellion implies violence, and ruling that Puigdemont was not personally involved in violent acts during the referendum.

Nine other Catalan separatist leaders such as Sanchez are currently in jail in Spain and face trial on rebellion charges.