Catalan former leader forms new party a year after independence bid

Barcelona (AFP) –


A year after threatening the unity of Spain with an attempt to declare independence, the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont launched a new party on Saturday, as he tries to rally separatists from his base in Belgium.

The new group, named "The Call", will hold a founding congress Saturday evening, marking the one year anniversary of the secession push, but it has struggled to attract a groundswell of support, with some allies languishing in Spanish jails and others choosing a more moderate political path.

"The year that separates us from this historic date did not unfold as we wished," said new Catalan leader Quim Torra, in a sombre televised address to mark the October 27, 2017 declaration of independence.

"But turning back is not an option."

The independence declaration threw Spain into political turmoil, with the central government ousting Puigdemont, who then fled to Belgium, dissolving parliament and imposing direct control over the wealthy northeastern region.

Snap polls in December saw separatist parties once again win an absolute majority in the regional parliament.

But Torra, who regularly seeks counsel from Puigdemont, presides over a Catalan government divided between those who back disobedience to advance the cause of independence and those who favour dialogue with new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

The trial of 18 former Catalan leaders over their role in the separatist push, expected to start in early 2019, helps to keep the separatist camp mobilised.

The meeting of Puigdemont's party on Saturday is due to be held in the pro-independence town of Manresa, in the centre of Catalonia, near to the prison where the independence leaders are being held.

- 'Bittersweet' -

Several dozen activists from the powerful grassroots separatist organisation ANC, which has previously staged massive pro-independence street protests in Barcelona, gathered at the city's regional administration offices early Saturday to demand the official publication of the independence declaration.

"This anniversary is quite bittersweet, a day of great hope that did not materialise," said ANC president Elisenda Paluzie.

Madrid continues to refuse to allow any referendum on self-determination in Catalonia, despite Sanchez's reliance on Catalan separatist parties to pass legislation.

This has helped further fracture the independence movement.

While Puigdemont's supporters are due to listen to his speech on the big screen on Saturday, a more radical separatist group plan to hold a protest in front of the regional government headquarters to reproach Torra.

Their slogan: "One year of relinquishment, one year of submission, that is enough!"

Puigdemont is due to present a "Council of the Republic" -- a sort of Catalan government in exile in Belgium -- in the coming days aiming to rally support for a continued independence push.

"We are not talking about a dream, we are talking about a reality, we are talking about the Catalan Republic," says a TV clip for the new party.