Catalan MPs have elected a separatist as parliamentary speaker, a first step in a plan by pro-independence deputies to get regional leader Carles Puigdemont, in self-exile in Belgium, back into power.

A member of the left-wing ERC party, Roger Torrent was elected with 65 votes against 56 for an anti-independence candidate in an assembly where eight seats were empty, their occupants in jail over their role in Catalonia's independence drive or in self-imposed exile in Belgium.

Mr Puigdemont fled to Brussels in October after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy fired him as Catalonia’s leader for declaring an independent republic following an illegal referendum.

He faces arrest and possibly decades in jail if he returns to Spain.

The parliament is also meeting to choose the committee that rules its day-to-day activities. A new leader could be voted in by parliament as early as 31 January.

Its advisory body said in a non-binding report on Monday that parliament’s rules allowed a president to be appointed without them being present only in the event of "hospitalisation, serious illness or an extended disability".

Any other reason would require a legal reform to parliament’s laws, it said.

The central government in Madrid has warned it will maintain direct control over Catalonia if Mr Puigdemont attempts to govern from Belgium.