Quim Torra: New Catalan separatist leader sticks steadfastly to independence from Spain | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 14.05.2018
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Quim Torra: New Catalan separatist leader sticks steadfastly to independence from Spain

After six months of standstill, Catalonia's regional government has chosen a new president. Quim Torra takes over from Carles Puigdemont, with his predecessor’s blessing and rapprochement with Madrid a long way off.

The figurehead of the Catalan independence movement, Carles Puigdemont, made no secret about how he views the role of his successor. In a video message from Germany, he named Quim Torra as Catalonia's new regional president, but spoke of a "provisional period."

The subtext: Puigdemont continues to see himself as Catalonia's "legitimate president." That's perhaps why the conservative Spanish newspaper "El Mundo" described Torra as "Puigdemont's ventriloquist."

And Torra himself was also clear about the division of labor while presenting his government program: "Our president is Carles Puigdemont," said the 55-year-old lawyer in Barcelona's parliament on Monday.

Read more: Catalan independence - What you need to know

Fraught relations with Madrid

On paper at least, though, it's the former businessman Quim Torra steering the fates of some 7.5 million Catalans. Six months after the removal of separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia once again has a government. In theory, that should lift Article 155 of the Spanish constitution. That's the legal basis on which the national government in Madrid suspended the region's political autonomy after it declared independence. 

But Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is unlikely to have any easier a time dealing with Puigdemont's successor. If his statements so far are anything to go by, Quim Torra is not looking for a settlement with Madrid. Rather, he said that he will "work tirelessly to build an independent state in the form of a republic."

Rajoy was clearly not amused, commenting that he didn't like what he'd seen or heard, but that he would judge Torra "on his actions." But he added that should the new leader violate the constitution, he would also be removed from power.

Read more:Puigdemont case highlights concern over Interpol arrests 

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Nationalist with a business background

For almost two decades, Torra served as a manager for the insurance company, Winterthur. For two of those years, he was based in Switzerland. After that, he dedicated himself to supporting Catalan culture, much in the same way as Puigdemont. His political discourse also bears similarities to that of his predecessor.

"No European citizen has to endure what we Catalans are enduring at the moment," he told parliament several weeks ago. Shortly after he was named president, the Spanish press published several old tweets that Torra had already deleted from his Twitter account. 

"We've been living since 1714 under Spanish occupation," he wrote. In another tweet, he accused Spaniards of being looters. Catalan culture and history are close to Torra's heart. Before entering politics, he was the head of the Born Cultural Center in Barcelona. There, ruins remind visitors of the occupation of the city during the War of Spanish Succession at the start of the 18thcentury.

At the time, the Catalans were allied with the Habsburgs. Barcelona was occupied by French and Spanish troops and capitulated on September 11, 1714. That was also the end of Catalan self-rule. Given this history, Torra once described the center as the "Ground Zero of Catalans" – referencing the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001.

Torra went on to start a publishing house for Catalan literature. He himself is the author of many political essays and several books. For a short time, he was also the leader of the separatist organization known as Omnium Cultural.

Torra is "Plan D"

Like Puigdemont, Torra hails from the Catalan separatist stronghold of Girona. Puigdemont comes from the small mountain village of Amer; Torra from the small coastal city of Blanes. Torra's political career began with the new elections held in December 2017. He ran as an independent on Puigdemont's electoral list and gained a seat in the regional parliament. 

His big advantage now in being named regional president lies in the fact that, unlike other candidates, he has not yet been targeted by the Spanish judiciary. And yet separatists have been referring to his nomination as "Plan D" – due to the fact several prominent leaders of the Catalan separatist movement continue to find themselves either in exile or in pre-trial detention in Spain.

Such is the case with "Plan A" – Carles Puigdemont. Torra is among the party members to have regularly visited him in exile, initially in Brussels, then in prison in the German town of Neumünster, and most recently in his hotel in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin.

That's where Puigdemont offered Torra his support. But once again underlining his understanding of his presidency as a temporary solution, he included the following proviso in his video message: Torra should not use Puigdemont's former office in Barcelona's presidential palace.

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