Catalonia’s New Tack: Choosing a Leader Not Facing Prosecution

Catalonia’s New Tack: Choosing a Leader Not Facing Prosecution

MADRID — Catalonia’s main separatist parties took a significant step on Saturday toward ending the region’s political deadlock by voting on a presidential candidate who is not facing prosecution in Spain.

The candidate, Quim Torra, fell just short of winning a majority in Parliament, but he will get another chance in a second round of voting on Monday, when the threshold will be lower.

Mr. Torra, addressing lawmakers on Saturday, said he was committed to turning Catalonia into a republic even after the region’s failed independence effort in October. He also presented himself as a stand-in for Catalonia’s former leader, Carles Puigdemont, whom he called “our president.”

Mr. Puigdemont, who left the country to avoid prosecution, is awaiting a German court ruling on whether he should be extradited to Spain to stand trial on charges of rebellion related to leading Catalonia’s tumultuous independence drive. This past week, he endorsed Mr. Torra as his replacement after Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended a regional law that would have allowed him to be re-elected in absentia.

On Saturday, the 135-seat Parliament voted 66 to 65 in favor of Mr. Torra, just shy of a majority. On Monday, though, Mr. Torra will need simply to get more votes in favor of his candidacy than against.

A lawyer by training, Mr. Torra, 55, is also a book publisher with a long history of backing Catalan separatism. He was briefly the president of Omnium Cultural, one of Catalonia’s two main pro-independence associations. But because he has not been on the front line of Catalan politics and was not in Mr. Puigdemont’s cabinet, Mr. Torra is not among the 25 Catalans whom Spain wants to prosecute on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.

The current Parliament was elected in December, in a vote called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy after his national government thwarted the independence effort.

But the vote failed to deliver the result that Mr. Rajoy had sought. Instead, the three main Catalan separatist parties retained a narrow majority, 70 seats, and took 47.5 percent of the vote. That result was nearly identical to the previous election, in 2015.

The separatist parties have since been unable to form a government, largely because some of their more prominent lawmakers have been jailed in Madrid or have fled with Mr. Puigdemont to avoid prosecution.

Catalan lawmakers must elect a leader of their regional government by May 22 to avoid a new election.

The selection of Mr. Torra on Monday could hinge on the votes of the four lawmakers of a far-left party, the Popular Unity Candidacy, who abstained on Saturday. Despite its small size, the party, known by its Catalan acronym CUP, has played a pivotal role in guaranteeing that separatists hold on to a narrow parliamentary majority since 2015.

The Spanish government on Saturday denounced Mr. Torra’s promise to push for a Catalan republic, saying he had delivered “a speech of the past” and “didn’t present himself as the candidate that Catalans deserve and need.”

The government also warned Mr. Torra that it would be “very watchful of the candidate and his possible government: Any illegality and any violation of our constitutional framework will receive a response.”

At a meeting of his own party in southern Spain, Mr. Rajoy said Mr. Torra would be judged on his actions, but “what we have seen and heard doesn’t please a lot of us because we don’t believe it represents what Catalonia is.”

Before this crisis, Catalonia was administered by an autonomous regional government. Mr. Torra’s election would end a period of direct rule by Madrid that Mr. Rajoy imposed in October after separatist lawmakers tried to declare independence. But it would do little to end a territorial crisis that has rippled beyond Spain’s borders, particularly given Madrid’s efforts to extradite seven Catalan politicians from four countries.

On Saturday, Mr. Torra said he wanted to unwind some of the measures taken by Mr. Rajoy after the national government took charge. As part of that intervention, Mr. Rajoy’s government closed the external affairs agency of Catalonia and its representative offices overseas.

Mr. Torra pledged to reopen the offices and expand Catalonia’s diplomatic network, stressing the “necessity of an international policy.”

Mr. Torra is mostly unknown in the rest of Spain, but he has set off controversy in the past, notably when he posted Twitter messages a few years ago in which he accused Spain of plundering and occupying Catalonia. In one, Mr. Torra wrote that “shame is a word that the Spanish removed from their vocabulary years ago.”

He eventually erased the tweets but did not apologize.

After his endorsement by Mr. Puigdemont, several unionist politicians accused him of being Mr. Puigdemont’s puppet, intent upon pursuing the same unreachable and unconstitutional goals.

With Mr. Torra, “the only thing that is guaranteed is more confrontation,” Inés Arrimadas, the leader in Catalonia of the Ciudadanos party, told lawmakers on Saturday.

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