(Bloomberg) -- After more than a decade writing and editing books about the history of Catalonia, Joaquim Torra now has the chance to write its next chapter.
Torra, 55, was sworn in on Monday as the seventh president of the region since Spain returned to democracy in 1978. He has already said his goal will be to make Catalonia an independent republic.
“Yes I am a radical -- I’m a radical because I like to get to the bottom of problems,” Torra said May 12 in a Catalan parliament debate as he answered accusations from pro-Spain deputies that he was an extremist.
The appointment of a committed separatist to run a region deeply divided on the secession issue threatens to ignite fresh tensions with the central government in Madrid, which used emergency powers to block an attempt by his predecessor Carles Puigdemont to declare independence after an illegal referendum last October. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has already warned Torra he’ll be watching him closely to make sure his new government doesn’t break Spanish law.
Torra is the fourth candidate backed by the two largest separatist parties after entering the Catalan parliament for the first time in December. Two other candidates proposed by Puigdemont were ineligible in practical terms because they have already been jailed on remand. Puigdemont himself is now in Berlin attempting to dodge efforts by a Madrid court to have him extradited back to Spain to face charges of rebellion.
Torra sought to reassure Catalans that he would base the quest for independence on respect for the whole of the region’s population. “The Catalan republic will only go ahead if it is built around the people,” he said in a speech to the regional parliament on Monday.
Even so, his opponents have pointed to Torra’s anti-Spain rhetoric on social media and in opinion columns as evidence that he will lead a partisan government. The government issued a statement on Saturday saying he wasn’t “the candidate that Catalans deserve and need.”
“The fascism of Spaniards living in Catalonia is infinitely pathetic,” is among the comments on Twitter highlighted by Ines Arrimadas, the leader of Ciudadanos, the biggest group in the Catalan parliament which backs the region’s links to Spain. He apologized for these and other remarks in a May 11 interview with regional government-owned broadcaster TV3.
“Regarding these comments I will not dignify them with a comment,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas, told reporters Monday.
“Those comments don’t define who he is,” said Agusti Alcoberro, a former head of the Catalan National Assembly, an activist group which, along with Omnium Cultural, has led mass pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona. “Torra is an intellectual and what he really is can be found in his books and long articles.”
Torra himself led the Omnium group in 2015. His professional background is in insurance and he worked for 20 years as an executive at Winterthur before leaving in 2007 when the company was bought by Axa SA. In 2008, he founded his own publishing company A Contra Vent Editors SL for which he has edited at least 60 books.
A lot of them are about Catalan history of the early 20th century. Torra himself is the author at least four books, including one with profiles of 20 significant Catalan figures of the 1930s. He combined his work as author and a book editor with posts such as running the El Born cultural center, which is set among the ruins of 18th-century houses and is dedicated to educating visitors about the 1714 siege of the city by Spanish forces.
“Under the monarchy of Alfonso XIII, under the dictatorship, under the republic, and the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera and the Spanish Republic, the fascism of General Franco and with the Bourbon restoration of King Juan Carlos -- under all these regimes for the last hundred years, the presidents of the Generalitat either end up in jail or in exile,” Torra said in a March 1 speech. “The only possible conclusion is we will be only be free with a Catalan Republic.”
Of Torra’s five predecessors as elected leaders of Catalonia since , four are living freely in the region while Puigdemont fled following the crisis of October.
Torra gave his own version of how the secession process should work in his 2016 book “The Last 100 Meters -- The Road Map to Winning the Catalan Republic.” He suggested civil disobedience could be a tool to securing independence and set out his belief that the international community would end up mediating the Catalan issue.
“He is a charming person, with a great cultural background -- and that makes him more dangerous,” said author and journalist Miquel Gimenez, who worked with Torra when he edited his work over a period of four years. “He has gone through a radicalization process.”
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