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Catalonia replaces regional president, continues moves towards independence

Artur Mas (L) passes the leadership of Catalonia to Carles Puigdemont, 10 January 2016.
Artur Mas (L) passes the leadership of Catalonia to Carles Puigdemont, 10 January 2016. AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE

Catalonia will continue its process towards independence despite political disagreements that kept the region from naming a government until late Sunday night. A unified independence movement puts additional pressure on the national Spanish government to form a coalition after elections in December that left the ruling party without a clear parliamentary majority.

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Artur Mas, who ran the Catalonian region since 2010, agreed to step down Sunday night in the face of opposition from two parties, notably the anti-capitalist CUP, which disagreed with his economic positions.

“They dragged it out until the last possible minute,” says Liz Castro, from the Catalan National Assembly, a pro-independence movement.

She was relieved to see the parties put aside their differences: “They cut it really close. But they pulled it off. And Carles Puigdemont is a very interesting person.”

Puigdemont will take up his role as president of the region on Tuesday. Relatively unknown, he has worked as a journalist for most of his career and served as the mayor of Girona since 2011.

More overtly pro-independence than his predecessor, Puigdemont is now tasked with continuing the separation process that started with a declaration on 9 November.

A coalition of pro-independence parties won September’s regional parliamentary elections, which they presented as a de facto referendum on independence, promising independence within 18 months if they won.

The Catalan parliament must now pass so-called “disconnection” laws to establish institutions to run an independent Catalonia.

But Barbara Loyer, of the French Geopolitical Institute at the University of Pars 8, says this will not be easy.

“More than half the population who voted in September are not favourable to independence: They feel Catalan and Spanish at the same time,” she says.

Faced with the possibility of a lengthy international approval process, and the spectre of economic difficulties, many prefer not to back the Catalan nationalists.

And this, says Loyer, will cause tension: ”I think it’s impossible to disregard violence between people in Catalonia. It’s not impossible, because people are really becoming very upset about this problem."

The tension is not confined to Catalonia.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has long opposed independence, reiterated Sunday night that “the government will not allow a single act that could harm the unity and sovereignty of Spain.”

But Rajoy lacks the full power he might have to enforce this. He has been relegated to acting prime minister after his People’s Party won the most seats in a parliamentary election in December, but lost its absolute majority.

He is calling for parties to put aside their differences and join a “grand coalition”. The Socialists, who came in second, are considering the idea. They have said they prefer a leftist coalition, but the left-wing Podemos party has said it supports a referendum on Catalan independence.

The Socialists insisted Monday that they would not join any coalition that includes a party with that position.

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