New Catalan leader vows to keep up independence fight

·2-min read

Moderate separatist leader Pere Aragones pledged to keep up Catalonia's fight for independence as he was elected Friday president of the northern Spanish region which tried to break away four years ago, plunging the country into turmoil.

In October 2017, Catalonia's separatist government staged an illegal referendum and then made a short-lived declaration of independence, sparking Spain's worst political crisis in decades and the exile or jailing of the main independence leaders.

The 38-year-old Aragones has called on Madrid to organise an independence referendum for Catalonia, one of the country's richest regions and home to about 7.8 million people.

The regional "government aims to ensure that the independence of Catalonia is possible", he said Friday before his election by local MPs.

That followed a regional election in February in which separatist parties captured more than half of the vote. But squabbling delayed the formation of a government.

However, three Catalan separatist parties put aside their policy differences and united in their desire for independence, backing Aragones as the new president.

"Now, we must resolve this political conflict through dialogue, negotiation... we will push ahead with negotiations, which will not be easy."

The jurist, the highest ranking leader of the leftist ERC party not in jail over Catalonia's failed bid to break away, is now one of the staunchest defenders of dialogue with Madrid.

In addition to an independence referendum, he wants amnesty for exiled or jailed leaders of the separatist movement.

Both options have been roundly rejected by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftist government.

Aragones has been Catalonia's acting president since September 2020.

- Deep divisions -

He took over from Quim Torra of the more hardline Together for Catalonia (JxC) party, who was banned from holding public office after being convicted by Spanish courts of disobedience.

Aragones was the right-had man of ERC leader and former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras, currently serving a 13-year jail term.

He implements decisions taken by Junqueras from behind bars.

Negotiations on defusing Catalonia's impasse appear jammed, especially since the coronavirus pandemic ravaged Spain, with Madrid refusing to bow to separatist demands for another referendum.

Unlike the JxC party of former regional president Carles Puigdemont, ERC has advocated a more moderate approach.

A poll this month showed slipping support for the separatist movement, over which the region remains deeply divided.

The issue of dialogue with Madrid has been a huge point of friction, particularly for JxC.

An initial bid to have Aragones appointed at the end of March collapsed when he won just 42 votes, falling far short of the 68 needed for an absolute majority.

Including the far-left CUP, pro-independence parties control 74 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament after strengthening their showing in February elections.

The coalition this time is being led by ERC as it won one more seat than JxC in the February election.

bur-ach/jz