Self-exiled Carles Puigdemont wants to appear by videolink to be elected from Belgium following Catalonia's abortive attempt to separate from Spain.

Members of the Catalan regional police force salute former president of Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell (C) before Catalan's parliament inaugural session on January 17, 2018 in Barcelona. Catalan's parliament is due to sit for the first time since it was dissolved by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Members of the Catalan regional police force salute former president of Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell (C) before Catalan's parliament inaugural session on January 17, 2018 in Barcelona. Catalan's parliament is due to sit for the first time since it was dissolved by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. (AFP)

Catalan lawmakers on Wednesday elected a separatist as parliamentary speaker, the first stage of a plan by pro-independence deputies to get regional leader Carles Puigdemont, in self-exile in Belgium, back into power.

The parliament meet is a first step toward forming a local government after December's elections but questions remain over whether the wealthy northeastern region will continue to push for a split from Spain.

Separatist parties won regional elections on December 21 called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to try and put a stop to a crisis that shook the wealthy region of 7.5 million people, the rest of Spain and Europe.

Despite being in Belgium, Puigdemont wants to make a comeback and govern the deeply divided region, though what he plans to do if he manages this remains a mystery.

For separatist lawmakers, the first step towards this was to secure control of parliament by getting one of their supporters elected as speaker.

They did precisely that on Wednesday, with 65 lawmakers voting for Roger Torrent, the 38-year-old member of the leftwing separatist ERC party, against 56 who cast their ballot for an anti-independence candidate.

They also got four supporters elected as deputy parliamentary speakers out of seven.

These make sure assembly rules are respected and will decide whether Puigdemont and others are allowed to be lawmakers while remaining out of the country.

Including the former Catalan president, five separatists are abroad and risk arrest on charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds for their role in the failed independence bid if they come back to Spain.

A further three pro-independence lawmakers are in jail pending a probe into similar charges.

TRT World's Sarah Morice has more on the story.

Parliament Speaker takes charge

In his first speech as speaker, Torrent said the priority would be to end Madrid's unpopular direct rule on Catalonia, imposed after the declaration of independence.

He added he wanted to "help look for understanding and dialogue in Catalonia's political life."

Lawmakers ended the session by singing the Catalan hymn, and separatist MPs shouted "long live a free Catalonia" and "freedom," briefly applauded by Torrent.

TRT World spoke to Barcelona-based political analyst Elizabeth Castro about attempts by Puigdemont to lead from abroad in absentia and status of the Catalonian government six months from now.

Puigdemont's investiture

Late on Tuesday, the two largest pro-independence parties said they had agreed to nominate Puigdemont as their candidate.

The separatist ERC party and Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia grouping reached a deal to support him "as candidate to be president of the Catalonia region," a joint statement said.

To become an elected president, Puidgemont should in theory be present at the parliamentary session where the vote to name a new leader takes place, but he wants to appear by videolink or write a speech and have it read by someone else.

The Catalan parliament's rules stipulate that the candidate for the regional presidency must "present his or her government programme to parliament."

It does not detail whether this must be done in person, but several legal experts, the opposition and the central government insist it cannot be done remotely.

Madrid's threats

Rajoy's government has warned Madrid will maintain direct control over Catalonia if Puigdemont attempts to govern from Belgium.

Madrid's direct rule has proven very unpopular in a region that had enjoyed considerable autonomy before its leaders attempted to break away from Spain.

In response, Rajoy seized control, sacked Catalonia's government, dissolved its parliament and called snap elections in December.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies