More than two months after regional elections, Catalonia's two main separatist parties said Monday they had reached agreement on forming a ruling coalition, heading off the looming threat of another vote.
The wealthy northeastern region's separatist parties put aside differences in order to form a government they hope will succeed where a 2017 bid to win the region's independence from Spain failed.
Three pro-independence parties boosted their showing in the February 14 elections including the leftist ERC and the hardline "Together for Catalonia" (JxC), who have ruled in a regional coalition since 2015.
The deal was announced ahead of a May 26 deadline for appointing a new regional leader. Failing that, the region would have had to hold fresh elections.
"We have managed to avoid a repeat election that nobody wanted and to reach a good agreement on forming a strong, unified government," said ERC leader Pere Aragones, who will serve as president of the region of 7.8 million people which is deeply divided over the issue of independence.
"We are beginning a new stage with this agreement on a pro-independence government... in which we can again move forward towards a Catalan republic," he told a news conference.
"With this agreement, we can start to... advance towards self-determination and obtain what we were so close to achieving in autumn 2017," said JxC's secretary-general Jordi Sanchez.
This time around, the coalition will be led by ERC as it won one more seats than JxC in the election in which the separatist parties secured 52 percent of the vote, handing them 74 of the parliament's 135 seats.
Aragones, who since September has served as acting Catalan president, said the new government would be committed to dialogue as a way of achieving independence.
"We pledge a firm commitment to dialogue and political negotiation to resolve the conflict... and advance towards independence as a truly free country," he said.
- To talk or not to talk? -
The failed independence bid culminated in the exile or imprisonment of the movement's top leaders.
The issue of dialogue with Madrid has been a huge point of division, sparking months of deadlock between ERC and JxC which is run from Belgium by Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president who fled into exile following the October 2017 independence bid.
JxC, which dominated the previous coalition, has been very wary of ERC for turning away from plans to stage another break from Spain and for seeking talks on a negotiated solution with Madrid.
"Dialogue (with Madrid) is not our strategy," JxC's secretary general Jordi Sanchez recently insisted.
Monday's announcement followed a weekend poll showing slipping support for the separatist movement and a Barcelona demonstration with hundreds of pro-independence activists demanding the parties reach a deal.
An initial bid to have Aragones appointed at the end of March collapsed when he won just 42 votes, falling far short of the 68 needed for an absolute majority.
In Madrid, government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero urged the separatist parties to "abandon the way of unilateralism," expressing the leadership's willingness to renew talks.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's left-wing government only holds a minority in parliament and has relied in part on ERC for support, which in turn has demanded talks on another independence referendum, a proposition that Madrid firmly opposes.