Catalonia’s new parliament has convened amid looming questions about the role fugitive and jailed politicians will play in the chamber’s separatist majority as well as the future regional government.
Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium in October to avoid a Spanish judicial probe over a foiled secession attempt, wants to be reinstated in his old job.
But he faces arrest if he returns to Spain, as well as a number of legal hurdles if he wants to be voted in from abroad by the regional assembly.
Seven more empty seats in the parliament belong to four former cabinet members sought by Spain’s Supreme Court who are with Mr Puigdemont and three more elected MPs - including former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras who are being held on provisional charges of rebellion or sedition.
Other former Cabinet members and parliamentary officials have been released from jail, but remain under investigation.
Spanish central authorities took direct control of the north-eastern region following the unilateral declaration of independence by separatist MPs on October 27.
Triggering special powers, Spain sacked Mr Puigdemont’s government, dissolved parliament and forced a new regional election on December 21 in the hope of halting the secession drive.
But contrary to Madrid’s hopes, separatists regained their slim parliamentary majority despite receiving less than half of the votes. In a first for Catalonia, a party that fiercely opposes independence was the most voted and gained the most seats.
In the inaugural session, there were yellow ribbons symbolising the protest against the judicial process in the seats of the absent MPs, while several hundred people rallied outside the parliament, waving pro-independence flags.
The newly-elected MPs will first choose a speaker and the chamber’s governing committee, a key group that could interpret procedural rules to allow Mr Puigdemont’s candidacy from exile.
The two main separatist parliamentary groups said they would elect a leftist, pro-independence speaker and would back Mr Puigdemont’s candidacy to form a government.
However, parliamentary legal advisers said in a report this week that Mr Puigdemont cannot be sworn in via video link or by having a proxy candidate as he must debate his candidacy in person in the parliament.
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has also vowed to maintain direct rule over Catalonia if the fugitive separatist politician tries to resume office from Brussels.
The parties that promote Catalan independence jointly hold 66 of the regional chamber’s 135 seats and also have support from four pro-independence, anti-establishment lawmakers.
Polls consistently show that most Catalans want the right to decide the region’s future, but are evenly divided over splitting from Spain.