Pro-independence parties took control of the Catalan parliament on Wednesday in what they hailed as the first step towards restoring the regional government after almost three months of direct rule from Madrid.
Celebrations erupted among flag-waving supporters in Barcelona as Roger Torrent, of the pro-independence Republican Left (ERC), was voted head of the speaker’s committee, the chamber’s decision-making body. The 38-year-old mayor will now play a key role in deciding the fate of Carles Puigdemont, the ousted Catalan leader, whose proposal for a long distance inauguration from Belgium will be ruled on by the committee.
Mr Torrent's role comes with a degree of risk however: its former occupant, Carme Forcadell, is facing charges of sedition and rebellion for facilitating the independence drive.
Addressing the chamber, Mr Torrent denounced the legal proceedings against much of the pro-independence leadership. He said the imprisonment of three parliamentarians - including Oriol Junqueras, the former vice president and ERC leader - was “absolutely unjustified, and impedes them being able to freely exercise their rights”.
Opposition parties had tried to thwart the election of Mr Torrent with a request - swiftly denied - that the parliament reject delegated votes from the three jailed politicians, whose empty seats were marked with yellow ribbons. Mr Puigdemont and four former cabinet members in self-imposed exile in Brussels dropped their attempts to vote via delegates after Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, warned he would appeal such a move at the Constitutional Court.
But while the legal travails of the independence bloc depleted the absolute majority of 70 seats won in the December 21 election, secessionists held on to a simple majority in a second round of voting. Mr Torrent’s victory was lauded by Mr Puigdemont, who said he was convinced he had the “courage” to “protect the institutions and the country”.
The formation of the new parliament was met with silence in Madrid. But in Brussels, Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, told the European Parliament he hoped Mr Rajoy's government would talk to the incoming Catalan administration, adding: "The only possible solution is dialogue."
But first, independence parties must confront a much more complex challenge - the question of the presidency, to be filled on January 31. Mr Puigdemont's Junts Per Catalunya - the largest secessionist party - insists he must return to the post, but its allies are increasingly signalling doubts over whether the plan is viable.
Direct rule is due to be lifted after the Catalan parliament votes for a new president on January 31. On Tuesday, Mr Rajoy said that direct rule under Article 155 would not be lifted if Mr Puigdemont tried to govern from exile.