Catalan lawmakers prepare to appoint new hardline leader

Barcelona (AFP) –


The Catalan parliament prepared Monday to elect fiercely pro-secession candidate Quim Torra as the region's new leader, who promised to keep fighting for an independent republic.

In a pre-vote speech to lawmakers Monday morning, Torra said he would respect the result of an independence referendum that took place on October 1 despite a court ban and would fight to "build an independent state in the form of a republic".

Catalan separatist authorities said 90 percent of the 2.2 million people who cast their ballot in the referendum -- out of 5.5 million eligible voters -- opted to break from Spain.

Torra's appointment as president is all but assured after the far-left radical pro-independence CUP party said it would abstain from Monday's parliamentary vote, rather than cast their ballot against him.

This will leave father-of-three Torra with the simple majority needed to be elected and paves the way for a new government after months of political limbo.

This in turn will lift emergency direct rule imposed by Madrid on October 27 after the majority separatist parliament made a short-lived unilateral declaration of independence.

Analysts warned the road ahead would be a rocky one, however, with politicians and voters split on the merits of trying to leave Spain.

- Puigdemont's pick -

Torra was handpicked as a candidate by deposed leader Carles Puigdemont, who was shown Monday on Catalan television following Torra's speech on a laptop from Germany where he is free under bail pending a court decision on whether to extradite him to Spain.

He faces jail on rebellion charges for last year's secession bid if he returns.

In an interview Saturday with Italian daily La Stampa, Puigdemont said Torra, as his designated successor, "takes power in provisional conditions and he is aware of that. From October 27, he will be able to call new elections".

Ines Arrimadas, leader in Catalonia of the centrist, anti-independence Ciudadanos party, has charged Torra is a mere "puppet" for Puigdemont.

- Crisis not over -

Torra tried -- and failed -- to be appointed on Saturday at an initial parliamentary vote that required an absolute majority.

In Monday's speech, the 55-year-old outlined what his new government would address in areas such as education, health and employment.

On Saturday, though, he focused entirely on independence.

During that speech, he lambasted European institutions for their "unacceptable silence" over the Catalan crisis.

He also said a "Republican council" would be created abroad in parallel, presided by Puigdemont, as well as an assembly composed of local officials.

Rajoy, meanwhile, has warned that constitutional direct rule "could be used again if necessary" if the next regional leadership did not respect the law.

- 'Secessionist momentum' -

Catalonia is one of Spain's richest regions, with 7.5 million people.

It has its own distinct language and cultural traditions.

Calls have increased in recent years for it to have more control over its finances, with some demanding outright independence.

Last year's secession bid plunged Spain into its biggest political crisis in decades.

After the brief declaration of independence, Rajoy imposed direct rule on Catalonia and called snap regional elections in December.

Separatist parties won these but every leadership candidate picked by the separatist camp have fallen flat as they are either in self-exile like Puigdemont, or in jail over their role in the secession bid.

- Problems ahead -

Torra faces divisions within the separatist camp, composed of the CUP, the leftwing ERC party and Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia grouping, according to Antonio Barroso, deputy research director at Teneo Intelligence.

Barroso said the ERC wants a moderate approach to avoid a Madrid clampdown and to play a longer independence game.

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

For Oriol Bartomeus, politics professor at Barcelona Autonomous University, what is in sight is "a divided government -- there could be fallout".