Catalan lawmakers vote on new regional separatist leader

Barcelona (AFP) –


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

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

On Friday, Torra said his government would march on with its "process of construction of a republic" in a sign that the secession crisis is far from over even if Catalonia does finally get a regional government after months of political limbo.

Still, he is not expected to get enough support during Saturday's parliamentary vote of confidence, which requires an absolute majority that he doesn't have.

He will get another opportunity in a second round, likely to take place on Monday, where he will only need a simple majority -- although even that is not assured.

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

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, Torra will scrape through in the second round with a simple majority. But if they vote against, he will not succeed.

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, sacking Puigdemont and his cabinet.

Regional elections were held 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.

- Tensions in separatist camp -

Antonio Barroso, deputy research director at Teneo Intelligence, told AFP that Torra -- an editor who also held high positions within pro-independence associations -- will likely act as Puigdemont's "surrogate".

He will be faced with deep divisions in the separatist camp, composed of the CUP, the left-wing ERC party and Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia grouping, he added in a research note.

"The problem is that separatist parties continue to disagree on what to do next," he wrote.

"ERC wants to execute a 'moderate shift' to keep secessionist politicians out of legal troubles, avoid direct rule by Madrid, and try to garner long-term support for independence.

"In contrast, Puigdemont's strategy is to continue using every opportunity... to continue challenging the Spanish authorities and keep the secessionist momentum alive."

Oriol Bartomeus, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, told AFP Torra had in his career shown "a pretty clear inclination towards the sector of the independence movement that is not really in favour of political normalisation."

In March he gave a rousing speech to the regional parliament calling on separatists to keep up their campaign against the central government.

"Do not think for a moment we will give up, not even a millimetre, to defend the justice, legitimacy and honourability of this cause," he thundered.