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Mar 22, 6:21 PM EDT

Catalan separatists fail to elect leader of Spanish region

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Catalan separatists fail to elect leader of Spanish region

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- The separatist majority of Catalonia's parliament failed to elect a regional president during a vote held Thursday, starting a two-month countdown to would end with another election being called in the restive corner of Spain.

Candidate Jordi Turull, a former minister in the previous Catalan government, fell short of the absolute majority needed due to a division within the three parties who seek independence for the northeastern region.

An abstention by lawmakers from the anti-capitalist CUP party left Turull with 64 votes when he needed 68.

Parliament rules say he could have a second chance to be elected on Saturday, when only a simple majority of more "Yes" than "No" votes would be required to make him Catalonia's next president.

But Turull and five other separatist leaders have a date at the Madrid-based Supreme Court on Friday, when a judge could indict them on rebellion charges and sent to preventative jail.

The regional parliament now has two months to elect a president and form a government before a new election is triggered. Other candidates may be put up during that time.

Turull earned the votes of his "Together For Catalonia" group and the Republican Left, while the CUP's four members abstained. The 65 members of parties who want Catalonia to remain part of Spain voted against him.

Turull already spent a month in preventative jail as part of the judicial investigation into the regional parliament's unsuccessful declaration of independence in October, which led Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to remove Catalonia's government.

Turull is the third candidate proposed by separatist lawmakers since they maintained a slim majority in a December election called by Rajoy. His candidacy brought political tensions in Spain to a head once more.

"I prefer to accept the risk of being a victim of injustice than to back away from what is happening," Turull told the Catalan assembly with his court date looming less than 24 hours away.

But Turull didn't mention "independence" or "republic" during the hour-long speech to fellow lawmakers outlining the policies he would pursue if elected. Instead, he said he wanted to foster dialogue with Spain's central authorities, though he didn't specify what the dialogue should cover.

The absence of a clearly articulated position in favor of secession from the rest of Spain cost Turull the support of the left-wing CUP.

CUP parliament spokesman Carles Riera said his party could not accept any candidate besides former president Carles Puigdemont, who is a fugitive from Spanish law since he fled to Belgium in October.

Riera then deepened the divide within the separatist bloc by announcing that the CUP was breaking its alliance with the other two parties.

"We at the CUP consider that this phase of the independence movement is over," Riera said. "We are joining the opposition to continue our struggle with the state and to fight those who want to sustain the current regional model."

Opposition leader Ines Arrimadas of the Citizens party chided the separatists for not presenting a candidate free of legal problems, which the Spanish government has said is a prerequisite for it ending its takeover of Catalonia's regional affairs. Arrimadas accused them of worsening the political showdown with Spain.

"You don't start governing, because if you did, you would have come here with a candidate that didn't have to see a judge tomorrow," Arrimadas said. "You just want the conflict and problems to continue."

Following the vote, Republic Left announced that three of its members who are also summoned to the Supreme Court on Friday are renouncing their seats in the Catalan parliament. They will be replaced by party members.

Also Thursday, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal to release two other high-profile separatists from pre-trial detention while a judge investigates Catalonia's attempt to secede.

The top court ruled that there was still a risk that Joaquim Forn, the ousted Catalan Interior Minister, and Jordi Sanchez, the former president of the pro-independence civil rights group ANC, to repeat the offenses that landed them in jail.


Aritz Parra contributed from Madrid. Barry Hatton contributed from Lisbon, Portugal.

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