MADRID (AP) — Catalan lawmakers on Monday elected a fervent separatist as the new chief of the restive region — ending more than six months of a leadership vacuum and setting the scene for a new confrontation with Spain.
Quim Torra, a corporate lawyer who went on to lead prominent pro-secession civil groups, has vowed to build an independent Catalan republic by working under the leadership of his predecessor — ousted president Carles Puigdemont.
Puigdemont is in Germany fighting extradition to Spain, where he is wanted for allegedly using public funds and orchestrating an “insurrection” to get the wealthy northeastern region around Barcelona to break away from Spain.
A Spanish Supreme Court judge has said Puigdemont’s bid to secede should be regarded as “rebellion” because it used “violence,” something rejected by separatists and questioned by German judges deciding on Puigdemont’s extradition.
Torra was elected 66-65 in Monday’s second round vote after he failed to secure an absolute majority in the 135-strong Catalan parliament over the weekend. Four lawmakers with the far-left anti-establishment CUP party abstained Monday.
Immediately after being elected, Torra said one of the goals of his new government would be to reinstate Puigdemont as “the legitimate president” of Catalonia.
The 55-year-old has also promised to create a “state council in exile” and vowed to establish a constituent assembly to write the constitution for a new Catalan republic.
“Everybody will win rights with the republic,” Torra told lawmakers in a speech before the vote. “Nobody will lose rights. The republic is for everybody, no matter what they vote.”
The Catalan separatist movement has caused the worst political and institutional crisis in Spain in decades.
Central authorities have been ruling Catalonia directly from Madrid since the regional government led by Puigdemont relied on the results of an outlawed referendum in October to declare unilateral independence from Spain.
The unprecedented Spanish takeover is set to end when Torra is sworn in along with a new Catalan cabinet in the next few days, but Spanish authorities have warned that controls could return if the new regional government breaks the law again.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he didn’t like what he had heard Monday in the Catalan assembly, but added that his judgment on Torra’s appointment will depend on Torra’s actions.
“We will bet on understanding and agreement in looking at the future,” Rajoy told reporters in Segovia. “But I say this, and I mean it: I will make sure that the law, the Spanish Constitution and the rest of the legal system are obeyed.”
His office announced meetings with the two leaders of the main opposition parties at the national level, Socialist Party Secretary General Pedro Sanchez and pro-business Ciudadanos (Citizens) party’s Albert Rivera.
Both leaders’ support allowed Rajoy’s conservative cabinet to take direct control of the Catalan affairs last year in response to the region’s unilateral independence declaration.
Polls show that Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents are evenly divided on whether the region should secede from Spain. A great majority wants to settle the issue in a referendum, which under current law only the central government can approve.