Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium, having fled arrest after organising an independence referendum from Spain in October.
The speaker of Catalonia's parliament postponed a crunch vote on Tuesday to formally re-elect ousted president Carles Puigdemont into office, delaying his controversial comeback bid.
But Roger Torrent defended Puigdemont's right to be re-elected by Catalan lawmakers despite a court ban after separatist parties won a majority in December elections and the former regional leader was officially nominated as candidate for the presidency.
"Today's plenary session ... is postponed," he told reporters, saying he wanted to ensure an "effective" pre-vote parliamentary debate with all legal "guarantees" in place.
Puigdemont, who left for Belgium shortly after Catalonia's parliament declared independence in October, faces arrest if he returns to Spain for leading the secession bid in the wealthy northeastern region that is home to some 7.5 million people.
Catalan lawmakers had been due to formally vote him into office on Tuesday afternoon.
But Spain's Constitutional Court ruled on Saturday – in response to a lawsuit filed by the central government – that Puigdemont must be present at the assembly to be chosen as the region's chief, throwing uncertainty onto whether the parliamentary session would go ahead.
The court also warned that swearing in Puigdemont at a distance, by videoconference as some of his supporters have proposed, would not be valid.
And it ruled Puigdemont must ask a supreme court judge leading the investigation into his role in Catalonia's independence push for permission to attend the parliamentary session.
But while he delayed the session Torrent defended Puigdemont's candidacy.
"I won't propose any other candidate," he said, adding Puigdemont had "every right" to be re-elected.
'Fugitive living in Brussels'
The latest episode in the secession crisis comes three months after the assembly's failed declaration of independence on October 27, which deeply divided Catalans and triggered Spain's worst political crisis in decades.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy moved to stop the crisis by imposing direct rule on the semi-autonomous region, sacking its government including Puigdemont, dissolving parliament and calling snap elections.
But in a major setback for the central government, separatist parties once again won a majority of 70 seats in the 135-seat parliament in the December polls.
While separatist parties won less than half the vote, 47.5 percent, they benefited from electoral rules which give greater weight to rural areas, where support for independence is higher.
Separatists argue Puigdemont was given a democratic mandate for the independence declaration during a contested referendum, which the courts and the central government declared illegal, and want to see him reinstated. But Madrid remains fiercely opposed to his return to power.
"You can't be a fugitive living in Brussels and expect to be elected president of a democratic institution," Rajoy said Tuesday in an interview on Spanish television.
Pick new candidate?
Torrent had risked criminal charges if he disobeyed the constitutional court by going ahead with the parliamentary session and re-electing Puigdemont remotely on Tuesday.
"The parliamentary speaker would undoubtedly face liabilities for failing to respect a court decision," Rajoy said earlier on Tuesday.
But it is unclear what will happen next.
A top lawmaker with the separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) party, Joan Tarda, said over the weekend it may be time to "sacrifice" Puigdemont although there is no obvious alternative choice.
But Torrent's defence of the former Catalan leader makes this unlikely.
A stalemate could eventually end up in new elections.