More than three 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.
Although the wealthy northeastern region's pro-independence parties boosted their showing in the February 14 elections, the main factions were unable to agree on a government due to deep disagreements over strategy.
The pact between the leftist ERC and the hardline "Together for Catalonia" (JxC), which have ruled in a regional coalition since 2015, emerged ahead of a May 26 deadline for appointing a new regional leader.
"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.
"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.
This time around, the coalition will be led by ERC as it won one more seat 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.
ERC has advocated a more moderate approach to independence based on negotiation with Madrid, and Aragones, who has served as acting Catalan president since September, said this approach would continue.
With ERC's 33 mandates and the 32 held by JxC, the coalition will hold 65 of the parliament's 135 seats but will be backed in parliament by its smaller separatist ally the far-left, anti-capitalist CUP, which holds nine seats.
- A phase of dialogue -
In October 2017, Catalonia's separatist government staged an illegal referendum then made a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering Spain's worst political crisis in decades and the exile or jailing of the main independence leaders.
Since then, the issue of dialogue with Madrid has been a huge point of friction, particularly for JxC whose leader Carles Puigdemont, who was Catalan president at the time, fled into exile in Belgium after the failed breakaway bid.
JxC, which dominated the previous coalition, has been very wary of ERC for distancing itself from plans to stage another break from Spain and seeking talks on a negotiated solution with Madrid.
"Dialogue (with Madrid) is not our strategy," JxC's secretary-general Jordi Sanchez recently insisted.
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.
But Monday, Sanchez said the agreement "brings together the two main outlooks of pro-independence movement".
And Aragones said the new government would make "a clear commitment to enter a phase of negotiation", the results of which would be evaluated in two years.
At that point, a decision would be taken on whether to continue talking or "to keep moving towards a Catalan republic" he said, without giving further details.
- Dialogue to resume -
Monday's announcement followed a weekend poll showing slipping support for the separatist movement, over which the region remains deeply divided.
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.
In January 2020, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez agreed to open talks with Catalonia's regional leaders as part of a deal to win ERC's support in the national parliament for his new government.
Although the talks never got off the ground because of the pandemic, they are due to begin once a new Catalan administration is in place.
Their positions, however, are far apart with the separatists demanding a legally-binding independence referendum and amnesty for their exiled or jailed leaders. Both options have been roundly rejected by Sanchez's government.