Future of Catalan crisis at stake as new parliament convenes

BARCELONA: Catalonia's new parliament began meeting Wednesday amid looming questions about the role that fugitive and jailed politicians will play in the chamber's separatist majority and the future regional government.

Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium in October dodging a Spanish judicial probe over a foiled secession attempt, wants to be reinstated in his old job. But he faces arrest if he returns to Spain and legal hurdles if he wants to be voted in from abroad by the regional assembly.

Seven more empty seats in the parliament are those of four former cabinet members sought by Spain's Supreme Court who are with Puigdemont and three more elected lawmakers —including former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras— jailed on provisional charges of rebellion or sedition.

Other former Cabinet members and parliamentary officials have been released from jail, but remain under investigation.

Spanish central authorities took direct control of the northeastern region following the unilateral declaration of independence by separatist lawmakers on October 27.

Under special powers, Spain fired Puigdemont's government, dissolved parliament and forced a new regional election on December 21 in the hope of halting the secession drive.

But contrary to Madrid's hopes, separatists regained their slim parliamentary majority despite receiving less than half of the votes. In a first for Catalonia, a party that fiercely opposes independence was the most voted and gained the most seats.

In the inaugural session, there were yellow ribbons symbolizing the protest against the judicial process in the seats of the absent lawmakers while several hundred people rallied outside the parliament, waving pro-independence flags.

The newly-elected lawmakers will first choose a speaker and the chamber's governing committee, a key group that could interpret procedural rules to allow Puigdemont's candidacy from exile.

The two main separatist parliamentary groups said Tuesday they would elect a leftist, pro-independence speaker and would back Puigdemont's candidacy to form a government.

But parliamentary legal advisers said in a report this week that Puigdemont can't be sworn in via video link or by having a proxy candidate as he must debate his candidacy in person in the parliament.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has also vowed to maintain direct rule over Catalonia if the fugitive separatist politician tries to resume office from Brussels.

The parties that promote Catalan independence jointly hold 66 of the regional chamber's 135 seats and also have support from four pro-independence, anti-establishment lawmakers.

Polls consistently show that most Catalans want the right to decide the region's future but are evenly divided over splitting from Spain.