Catalonia's parliament failed to elect pro-independence candidate Quim Torra as regional president today, although the candidate handpicked by deposed leader Carles Puigdemont said he will work "tirelessly" for a split from Spain.
Following a bullish anti-Madrid speech during a debate in the Catalan parliament, Torra won 66 votes against 65, with 4 regional lawmakers abstaning in the first round of voting.
However, the same result in the second round vote scheduled for Monday would be enough for him to be elected, as only a simple majority will be required.
The 55-year-old father-of-three, is an independence advocate cut from the same cloth as Puigdemont, who is currently in exile in Germany fighting an arrest warrant and extradition request from Spain, but still exerting his influence on politics back in Catalonia.
Addressing parliament, Torra said he was "working tirelessly for the Catalan republic" and signalled 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 responsibility 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.
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 government also issued a statement calling Torra's speech divisive and accusing Puigdemont, in naming his successor, "of making first the interests of an individual rather than the general interest of all citizens."
The opposition accused Torra of throwing "oil on the fire".
"Independence lost a great opportunity today, (that of having) a candidate who recognises his errors," said Ines Arrimadas, leader of the centre-right Ciudadanos, the party that received the most votes in the last regional elections.
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. While Puigdemont faces jail if he returns home, 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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