Catalan lawmakers vote on new regional separatist leader

AFP , Saturday 12 May 2018

Quim Torra, the candidate proposed by former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to head the regional Catalan government, is applauded by his fellow party deputies after delivering his speech during an investiture debate at the regional parliament in Barcelona, Spain, May 12, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

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

Torra, 55, a father-of-three, is an independence advocate cut from the same cloth as Puigdemont, who chose him to continue his fight with Spain's central government to achieve Catalan independence.

The candidate gave a bullish speech at the opening of debate in the regional parliament, signalling that the secession crisis is far from over, even if Catalonia does finally get a government after months of political limbo.

"I want it to be clear that our president is Carles Puigdemont and we will be loyal to the mandate of October 1 to build an independent state in the form of a republic," Torra said, referring to last year's outlawed independence referendum.

He promised to restore Catalonia's laws suspended by Spanish courts and start drafting a constitution for a future Catalan Republic, stressing that he would "not give up anything" and would "assume responsiblity for what comes from our actions".

Puigdemont would become involved as soon as his legal situation allowed, added Torra, who also condemned the "unacceptable silence" of European institutions over the Catalan crisis.

But he did say was "ready to talk tomorrow without conditions" with the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Rajoy quickly responded to the speech, saying: "What we saw and heard did not please us... but we will judge his actions."

He also warned that under Article 155 of the constitution, which the government used to impose direct rule on Catalonia, "could be used again if necessary," if the next regional leadership did not respect the law.

The opposition will be given the chance to respond to Torra's speech in the afternoon, after which the parliament will hold a vote of confidence.

Torra is not expected to get enough support as the vote requires an absolute majority which he doesn't have.

However 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 sacked Puigdemont and his cabinet and imposed direct rule on the semi-autonomous region after it unilaterally declared independence on October 27.

Regional elections were held in December, which separatist parties won again, but every leadership candidate picked by the separatist camp since 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.

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 leftwing 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 that 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 Torra 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.

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