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Jailed separatists, women in numbers and far-right bloc colour Spain's rainbow chamber

Jailed separatists, women in numbers and far-right bloc colour Spain's rainbow chamber
General view of the chamber during the first session of parliament following a general election in Madrid, Spain, May 21, 2019. Javier Lizon/Pool via REUTERS -
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By Belén Carreño and Ingrid Melander

MADRID (Reuters) - Four jailed Catalan separatists, 24 far-right lawmakers, a record number of women and the biggest Socialist group in years on Tuesday inaugurated a parliament that reflects Spain's divisions and diversity like no other in recent memory.

Acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists boosted their representation in the April 28 election but have yet to put together a working majority in the fragmented chamber, and say it may not happen until July.

The parliament of many firsts vividly illustrates the demise of the decades-old domination of politics by the Socialists to the left and the conservative People's Party to the right.

The 24 Vox lawmakers are the first far-right bloc to sit in parliament since Francisco Franco's dictatorship ended in the late 1970s, although one single far-right legislator sat from 1979-1982.

Newcomer Vox gained 10% of the vote last month and counts among its legislators two retired generals who have signed a manifesto honouring Franco's memory.

In the chamber, the bloc sat right behind the acting Socialist government bench, and behind them sat one of the jailed Catalan members of parliament, Oriol Junqueras.

FROM JAIL TO PARLIAMENT

The four separatists are the first lawmakers to make their way to parliament from jail, as they undergo trial over a banned independence referendum. They were applauded into the chamber by fellow Catalan separatists as well as Basque nationalists from the Bildu party. One other jailed Catalan leader was elected to the upper house, the Senate.

Spain's lower house is now Europe's most gender-equal legislature, with 47.1% women, sitting alongside a Vox contingent, including nine women, that strongly opposes existing equality laws, saying they discriminate against men.

To the left of the Socialists are another relative upstart party in the anti-austerity Podemos ("We Can"), hoping to strike a coalition deal with Sanchez.

"Citizens made it clear by voting for many different political groups that flexibility and the ability to compromise are the democratic values ​needed ​in the face of authoritarianism," Podemos's ponytailed young leader, Pablo Iglesias, told reporters.

Sanchez, who has been non-committal about an alliance, told his Socialist lawmakers just before the full session of parliament that the party would promote its agenda of "social justice, coexistence and honesty".

SHADOW OF CATALONIA

Sanchez proposed two Catalan Socialists as parliamentary speakers, a nod to the prominent role that the politically volatile region is likely to play during his mandate.

His candidate to lead Congress, Meritxell Batet, got 175 votes in a first round on Tuesday, one short of an absolute majority, but was then elected in a second round by simple majority. His equivalent candidate for the Senate, Manuel Cruz, was also elected.

The People's Party (PP) saw its representation halved despite an aggressive campaign based largely on opposition to any concession to Catalan independence, and only narrowly beat the young centre-right Ciudadanos ("Citizens") to the position of main opposition party.

On Tuesday, PP leader Pablo Casado, who could see his position challenged if his party also fares poorly in Sunday's EU election, objected to the presence of the jailed Catalan leaders and said they should be suspended.

The Supreme Court ruled that the five lawmakers could collect their papers and attend Tuesday's opening sessions before returning to prison.

They and seven other Catalan leaders are charged with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds, which they all deny. The trial is expected to last several more months.

(Reporting by Belen Carreno, Sabela Ojea, Paul Day; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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