Albert Gea / Reuters

Catalan lawmakers vote in pro-independence leader

Carles Puigdemont replaces Artur Mas as head of the majority separatist Catalan parliament

Catalonia's parliament swore in a new separatist leader on Sunday evening, putting the pro-independence movement's commitment to break with Spain over the next 18 months back on track after a long political deadlock.

The 11th hour decision played into a fraught national political scene since an inconclusive election last month in which Spain's ruling People's Party won the most seats but lost its parliamentary majority.

The country has been in stalemate since then. Polls that show a majority of people in Catalonia, a northeastern region of 7.5 million people with its own distinct language, say they want to remain part of Spain but with greater autonomy on issues such as tax.

After months of tense negotiations between Catalan parties over a leader who could unite the pro-independence movement, Carles Puigdemont, mayor of Girona, replaced Artur Mas as head of a majority separatist Catalan parliament, which will now restart the push for a unilateral split with Spain.

Catalonia's parties had until Monday to agree on a new leader or new regional elections would have had to be called.

Under the separatists' 18-month "roadmap," Catalan authorities will approve their own constitution and begin building institutions necessary for an independent state such as an army, central bank and judicial system.

"We begin an extremely important process, unparalleled in our recent history, to create the Catalonia that we want, to collectively build a new country," Puigdemont told the Catalan parliament.

He said Catalonia would need to negotiate with the Spanish state, the European Union and the international community to achieve such a goal.

His plan faces fierce opposition from Spain's central government under the People's Party, which refused to allow a referendum in Catalonia in 2014, arguing it would contravene Spain's constitution.

Acting Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Sunday he would block any unilateral move from the new Catalan government and had instructed all government officials to enforce the law.

The Spanish government considers the secessionist initiative to be unconstitutional and has used the judiciary to challenge it.

Rajoy said Spain wouldn't allow Catalan leaders to "grant themselves unlimited powers."

The resurgence of a unified independence movement increases pressure on Rajoy and his Socialist rivals to bury their differences. With the debate in the Catalan parliament still ongoing, Rajoy spoke on nationwide televison to say he had contacted most of Spain's main political parties and agreed with their leaders that secessionism wouldn't be tolerated.

"We have known how to set aside our differences to defend the unity of the nation," Rajoy said. Spain's Constitutional Court struck down a resolution for independence by the Catalan regional assembly in November.

Catalonia’s appeal for independence stems from a wide range of issues — the most notable of which are cultural and economic.

Catalans who support independence believe that the taxes residents pay to Spain’s central government are not commensurate with the benefits the region receives. 

Identity politics also play a role in Catalonia’s push for independence. Residents speak Catalan, a language previously banned under the long dictatorial rule of Francisco Franco in the middle of the 20th century. They have invested great effort in protecting their language and culture, which have contributed to the creation of a strong national identity.

Al Jazeera with Reuters

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