MADRID (Reuters) – Nationalists regained control of Catalonia’s government on Saturday and immediately pledged to seek independence for the wealthy region, in a major challenge for new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
The new Catalan cabinet was sworn in after months of tensions with the central government, automatically ending Madrid’s seven-month rule of the region, imposed by Sanchez’ predecessor after separatists declared independence.
Sanchez, a Socialist who has said he wants talks on Catalonia but opposes any independence referendum, was also sworn in on Saturday after parliament ousted conservative Mariano Rajoy over a corruption scandal.
The unexpected coincidence of the central and regional governments taking over at the same time could open a new chapter after dramatic months that have seen Catalan politicians jailed or flee abroad to avoid arrest.
Both sides have indeed said they want to talk.
But they have very different targets, with Spain’s Socialists, who had backed Rajoy’s Catalonia policy, opposing independence.
“This government is committed to moving towards an independent state in the form of a republic,” Catalonia’s new leader Quim Torra said after the cabinet’s swearing in ceremony in which separatists shouted “Llibertat! Llibertat!” (Freedom!).
He called on Sanchez, an untested lawmaker who has never been in government, to meet and talk about Catalonia’s future.
“President Pedro Sanchez let’s talk, let’s deal with this question, let’s take risks, you and us. We need to sit around the same table and negotiate, government to government.”
Sanchez, whom parliament backed as new prime minister on Friday as it kicked Rajoy out in an unlikely alliance of mainstream Socialists, hard-leftists and Catalan and Basque nationalists, will have a very slim majority in parliament.
Socialists only hold 84 seats in the 350-member assembly, which could make any bold move on the economic or political front – including on Catalonia – difficult.
He has already said he would stick to the 2018 budget crafted by Rajoy’s conservatives.
Sanchez’ majority is the smallest for a Spanish government since the return to democracy following Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, making it unclear how long his administration can last.
(Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Jesús Aguado)