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Catalan pro-independence parties elect new leader in independence push

Catalonia's pro-independence parties agreed on Saturday to appoint a new leader to enable the creation of a regional coalition government and reinvigorate a push for independence from Spain by 2017.

Carles Puigdemont was selected to replace Artur Mas as the Together For Yes alliance's candidate for regional government leader. Mr Mas announced the decision at a press conference late Saturday, ending months of negotiations.

The Spanish government, that considers the secessionist initiative to be unconstitutional and has used the judiciary to challenge it, appealed to Catalonia's leader to end the strategy of dividing and fracturing Catalan society.

"Dedicate your efforts to seeking solutions to your citizens' problems rather than to generating new tensions," it said in a statement.

Polls show that most Catalans support a referendum on independence, but are roughly evenly divided over breaking from Spain.

Mr Mas' ruling conservative Convergence party had joined forces with the Republican Left of Catalonia as Together For Yes to win 62 seats in the 135-seat regional parliament last September. However, Mr Mas needed 10 seats held by the radical, anti-capitalist CUP party to form a majority, and its leaders insisted he was not acceptable to them as the region's leader.

The CUP had repeatedly rejected Mr Mas' candidacy because of his past government's austerity policies and his party's links to corruption scandals, but said it would support another alliance candidate.

Mr Mas said he had agreed to "step aside" to allow the election of Mr Puigdemont, a move he said "guarantees the parliamentary stability of Catalonia".

He added it was "beneficial and appropriate" in order to secure the secessionist "project".

Mr Puigdemont is the mayor of the city of Girona and a member of Mr Mas's Convergence party. His appointment means new regional elections can be averted.

"New elections would have been the worst option for Catalonia," said Mr Mas.

He added he would not be retiring from politics, but was considering an ambassador-like role, taking the message that an independent Catalonia is a good idea overseas.

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