Catalonia's leader-to-be calls for independence process to start

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Catalan separatists to form government

Barcelona (AFP) - Carles Puigdemont, who has been chosen to lead Catalonia to independence from Spain, called Sunday for the secession process to start in his first speech to local lawmakers as they were on the verge of voting him in as new regional leader.

"We need... to start the process to set up an independent state in Catalonia," he said in a speech to the wealthy region's parliament, which was followed by loud applause.

After months of in-fighting, Catalonia's pro-independence faction that won regional parliamentary elections in September finally came to an agreement this weekend over who should lead the new local government.

The focus of the squabble had been Artur Mas, the incumbent, separatist regional president whom the far-left CUP party -- part of the secessionist faction that won the polls -- rejected over his support for austerity and corruption scandals linked to his party.

With Mas stubbornly refusing to step aside as a weekend deadline to form a government loomed, Catalonia seemed to be heading for fresh elections, which would have been the fourth since 2010.

But at the last minute, Mas agreed to step aside on Saturday, naming the relatively unknown journalist and politician Puigdemont as his successor.

This is expected to open the door for the now-united separatist lawmakers, who form an absolute majority in Catalonia's parliament, to vote in Puigdemont as new president later on Sunday evening.

The 53-year-old Catalan-language journalist and mayor of Girona will then appoint his cabinet.

He told parliament that apart from launching the secession process, Catalonia would need to offer to negotiate "with the Spanish state, the European Union and the international community."

- 'Power vacuum in Madrid' -

The last-ditch agreement to form a Catalan government stands in stark contrast to the situation in Madrid, where the national government is in limbo following inconclusive December polls.

Incumbent Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party (PP) came top in the December 20 elections but lost its absolute majority, leaving him struggling to form a coalition government.

"The (separatist) coalition is profiting from the power vacuum in Madrid," headlined online daily El Espanol on Sunday.

Faced with the prospect of secession by Spain's richest region, Rajoy insisted Saturday that the country's next national government should have "an ample parliamentary base with the stability and capacity to face the separatist challenge".

So far the PP's traditional Socialist rivals (PSOE), who came second in the elections, have refused to support him.

But ironically, the last-minute separatist deal may favour him as the PSOE stands united with the PP over its opposition to Catalonia breaking away from Spain.

"We reiterate our support for the caretaker government to enforce the law and defend the Constitution," Socialist lower house parliamentary group spokesman Antonio Hernando told reporters.

And Fernando Martinez-Maillo of the PP stressed that there was "no better way to confront secessionism than to see the Popular Party and the Socialist party join forces."

One of Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions with its own language and customs, Catalonia already enjoys a large degree of freedom in education, health and policing.

But fed up after years of demands for greater autonomy on the taxation front -- complaining it pays more to Madrid than it gets back -- the region veered towards separatism.

Polls show most in the 7.5 million-strong region support staging a Scotland-style referendum on independence -- which Rajoy has categorically refused to allow -- but in fact are divided over whether to make the break from Spain.

- 'Alarm bells' ringing again -

Catalonia's secessionist drive has worried not just Madrid, but business leaders too.

In November, the separatist lawmakers passed a motion in parliament breaking from Spain and calling for complete independence in 18 months.

But as week after week passed with no government in view, outsiders began to doubt that the separatists would ever be able to implement their independence plan.

Mas on Sunday attempted to put these doubts to bed.

"In the past few weeks (in Madrid), they were saying enthusiastically that Catalonia was sinking, they were so enthusiastic that they had started to relax," he told members of his CDC party on Sunday.

"But from yesterday, all the alarm bells started ringing again."