January 9, 2016 6:34 pm

Pro-independence parties to form new Catalonia government

Tobias Buck in Madrid

The two pro-independence parties in the Spanish region of Catalonia have struck a last-minute deal to form a new government, after regional president Artur Mas agreed to step aside and let another politician lead the planned push towards secession.

Confirming his decision in a press conference on Saturday evening, Mr Mas said: “The most important principle is the country and its people. They stand above any party and above any person.” Mr Mas and other independence leaders had until midnight on Sunday to either form a new regional government or resign themselves to an early election.

Any such move is certain to invite a furious reaction from Madrid. In the short term, the Catalan accord is also likely to raise the pressure on Spanish political leaders from the centre-right to the centre-left to set aside their differences and form a strong unionist government. Party leaders in Madrid have been at loggerheads since Spain’s inconclusive general election last month, which left even the strongest party — the ruling Popular party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — far from a governing majority.The decision is likely to have important repercussions both for the region and for Spain at large. The new Catalan government plans to steer the region towards a historic break with Spain over the next 18 months, by effectively setting up a state within the state — from a Catalan central bank to a separate tax authority.

Mr Rajoy has repeatedly urged the centre-left Socialists to support him as part of a national unity government designed to fend off the Catalan challenge. That appeal is now certain to gain in urgency.

Saturday’s deal marks a striking reversal for Mr Mas and his Junts pel Si movement, which had insisted until the last moment that it would not sacrifice the veteran leader. But with talks deadlocked, and a repeat election moving ever closer, Mr Mas finally agreed to make way for a party colleague, Carles Puigdemont, the mayor of Girona. The former journalist and editor is expected to be voted in as president of Catalonia in a special session of the regional parliament on Sunday.

Mr Mas made clear he was not retiring from politics, saying he was ready in particular to help the cause of Catalan independence in the international arena. “I remain at the disposition of the future president and the future government,” he said.

The decision to swap out presidents followed months of talks between Junts pel Si, the more mainstream of the independence parties, and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), a far-left secessionist group. Last September, the two parties won a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, but then fell out over the issue of who should lead the next regional government.

Mr Mas’s Junts pel Si party is by far the bigger of the two, holding 62 of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament. But the CUP, a fiercely anti-capitalist party that rejects Catalan membership of both the EU and Nato, refused to back him.

Late last month, the CUP even held a meeting of its party base to test the mood. But the gathering produced a perfect tie, with 1,515 members voting to back Mr Mas and 1,515 members voting against. The party leadership then decided to withhold its support — forcing Mr Mas to withdraw on Saturday.