Fervent secessionist picked as Catalonia’s stand-in leader

May 14, 2018
Separatist lawmaker Quim Torra, candidate for regional president, arrives at a parliamentary vote session in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, May 14, 2018. Catalonia's lawmakers are meeting to end more than six months of leadership vacuum by voting in a fervent separatist as the new chief of the restive region, setting the scene for a new confrontation with Spain. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Catalonia’s hardcore separatists have found their new flag-bearer.

Quim Torra, a regional lawmaker and book editor with strong anti-Spanish views, was voted in as Catalonia’s president Monday after he convinced the most uncompromising secessionists he would not flinch in his commitment to their cause.

A fervent Catalan nationalist, the 55-year-old former corporate lawyer was hand-picked by the region’s fugitive former leader to carry on the work of carving out a new European state from northeastern Spain.

During Monday’s investiture debate, Torra made clear his subservience to ex-Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who is fighting extradition from Germany. Puigdemont fled Spain after Catalonia’s Parliament made a unilateral and illegal declaration of independence in October and the Spanish government removed the regional Cabinet from office.

“Our president is Carles Puigdemont, and we will be faithful to the mandate of October...to build an independent state in the form of a republic,” Torra, a member of the regional parliament, told the chamber based in Barcelona.

The independence drive in Catalonia has created Spain’s deepest political crisis in decades and sent members of the previous administration to jail or like Puigdemont, to another country to avoid incarceration.

Laura Borras, a member of Puigdemont’s inner circle of advisers, told The Associated Press that while Catalonia’s new leader won’t be a “puppet,” his role is to act as a stand-in for the “legitimate president,” who faces sedition charges in Spain.

“Quim (pronounced ‘Kim’) Torra brings together all the necessary requirements: he is very determined, absolutely committed to the independence cause, and he has started this adventure because of his complete loyalty to President Puigdemont,” said Borras, who also is a regional lawmaker.

Puigdemont himself has called Torra’s presidency “provisional.” He told Italian newspaper La Stampa that Torra could call a new election as soon as October if “the Spanish state continues its persecution.”

Torra, who holds a law degree and once worked as an insurance executive, has impeccable secessionist credentials of his own. He served as president of a leading grassroots separatist group and as director of a historical memory center with a nationalist bent.

With a wry smile, he expresses anti-Spanish views that political opponents view as extreme or even supremacist. Torra has apologized publicly in the past for insulting Spaniards in articles, interviews and social media posts.

Among the comments that caused offense were his observations that Spaniards “only know how to plunder” and “have eliminated the word ‘shame’ from their dictionary.”

He also questioned the Catalan identity of Barcelona-born basketball player Pau Gasol and tennis star Rafael Nadal, who is from the Spanish island of Mallorca and speaks its local dialect of the Catalan language.

“They don’t express the Catalan identity we want. They are more Spanish,” Torra said of the popular athletes.

Some critics in Catalonia question Torra’s suitability to govern the region’s 7.5 million residents, most of whom have familial, cultural or sentimental connections to the rest of Spain. Polls show that voters are equally divided over secession.

“Millions of Catalans can feel absolutely excluded from what you propose as president,” Xavier Domenech, the leader of leftist party Catalunya en Comu Podem, said Monday. “Seventy percent of Catalans feel that they are also Spanish.”

Nor has Torra hidden the price he is willing to pay for a free Catalonia. He said in a 2011 interview that he hoped Spain would use military force to stop the Catalan secession movement because such a move would garner international sympathy.

“If Spain makes the mistake and sends in the tanks, we will win a lot,” Torra said.

Neither the Spanish government nor the country’s leading political parties has mentioned such drastic steps.

However, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has warned that he would not hesitate to fire another Catalan government if it broke the law.

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