Catalonia's new parliament on Wednesday elected a pro-secession speaker, virtually guaranteeing that the push for independence for Spain's northeastern region will continue as its lawmakers prepare to elect a new government.
The opening session of the new Catalan assembly came amid looming questions about the role that fugitive and jailed politicians will play within 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 to 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.
Puigdemont's and other empty seats in the parliament were adorned with a yellow ribbon Wednesday. Four ex-Cabinet members sought by Spain's Supreme Court are also in Brussels and three more elected lawmakers — including former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras — are 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 Catalonia 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, although Ciutadans [Citizens] — a party that fiercely opposes independence — gained the most seats.
Several hundred people rallied near the parliament in central Barcelona, waving separatist flags as they watched the new house speaker's election on a large outdoor screen.
Roger Torrent, a lawmaker with the left-republican ERC party, was elected to head the assembly's governing committee that plays a key role in deciding what issues are debated and voted on in parliament.
"I want democracy and coexistence to be the foundations of this term," Torrent told fellow lawmakers from the speaker's podium, vowing at the same time to restore the self-government of Catalonia that is now in the hands of Madrid. He also said that, as speaker, he would defend the right of "all 135 voices in the chamber," including those fugitive or in jail.
But Ciutadans leader Ines Arrimadas criticized the inaugural session, saying, "We start the legislature as we finished the last one, with a parliament speaker who is going to work only for independence."
However, she pointed out that things had changed in the parliament because the secessionist bloc now had fewer seats and votes and the independence stance had no international support.
"No matter what happens, we are going to be the guarantors for Catalonia not to make any independence declaration," she said.
Although Arrimadas' party won the most seats — 36 — unlike the secessionist bloc, she lacks enough support to form a government.
Torrent is tasked with choosing a candidate to try to form a government by the end of the month. The two secessionist parties back the candidacy of Puigdemont, but the former president would first have to get approval from Torrent's committee to vote and be elected from abroad.
Elsa Artadi, spokeswoman for Puigdemont's Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia), said the separatists are "working to explore all the tools in the parliament's rules to see what will be the formula."
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 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 seats in Catalonia's parliament 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.
Parra reported from Madrid. Associated Press writer Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.