Catalan lawmakers yesterday elected a separatist as parliamentary speaker, the first stage of a plan by pro-independence deputies to get regional leader Carles Puigdemont, in self-exile in Belgium, back into power.
As MPs met for the first time since a failed bid to break from Spain, protesters waving separatist flags gathered outside the assembly in Barcelona.
With 70 out of 135 deputies, they largely favour Puigdemont, sacked by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy along with his cabinet on October 27 after the regional parliament declared unilateral independence, as candidate for president.
Despite being in Belgium, Puigdemont wants to make a comeback and govern the deeply divided region. For separatist lawmakers, the first step towards this was to secure control of parliament by getting one of their supporters elected as speaker. They did precisely that yesterday, with 65 lawmakers voting for Roger Torrent, a member of the leftwing separatist ERC party, against 56 who cast their ballot for an anti-independence candidate.
Including the former Catalan president, five separatists are abroad and risk arrest on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds for their role in the failed independence bid if they come back to Spain. A further three pro-independence lawmakers are in jail pending a probe into the same charges.
To be elected president, Puigdemont should in theory be present at a later parliamentary session where the vote to name a new leader takes place, but he wants to appear by video link or write a speech and have it read by someone else.
The Catalan parliament's rules stipulate that the candidate for the regional presidency must "present his or her government program to parliament". It does not detail whether this must be done in person, but several legal experts, the opposition and the central government insist it cannot be done remotely.
Rajoy's government has warned Madrid will maintain direct control over Catalonia if Puigdemont attempts to govern from Belgium, which could lead to yet another crisis.Madrid's direct rule has proven very unpopular in a region that had enjoyed considerable autonomy before its leaders attempted to break away from Spain. According to Economy Minister Luis de Guindos, the secession crisis that kicked off on October 1 when Catalan leaders held an independence referendum despite a court ban has taken a financial toll. He has said the crisis has slowed economic growth in the region at an estimated cost of one billion euros ($1.2 billion). More than 3,000 companies have moved their legal headquarters out of the region as uncertainty persists.