Where are we?

Calling an independence referendum is no mean feat, but it will be done

It was quite an event when court officials were first sent to the Catalan parliament and the offices of the ministries involved in organising the 2014 non-binding referendum to subpoena those responsible. Doubts and consultations. In a show of dignity, more than one minister stated that they were unwilling to sign the court’s writ and were prepared to end up in Madrid’s Supreme Court or wherever they might have taken them. There was talk of seeking political asylum in France, if necessary, in what would have caused an unprecedented conflict within the EU.

Flash forward a few years and then-president Artur Mas has been banned from office; his vice president and two of his ministers at the time have also been suspended from public service for organising the non-binding vote of September 9, when 2.3 million Catalans were able to cast their ballot. Nowadays writs come as no surprise, and Madrid’s folders are bulging at the seams with pre-emptive indictments that aim to prevent the purchase of ballot boxes and block the pledge of Catalonia’s parliamentary majority to hold an independence referendum.

Prosecutions pile up high as a matter of course, and members of the Parliament’s Board are summoned before Catalonia’s High Court of Justice (TSJC, in Catalan) for having allowed a debate on independence in the Catalan chamber. A few thousand supporters stand by and then go to work. When extraordinary events occur repeatedly in a democracy, can they be regarded as routine? I would think not.

These last few weeks have been key to rebuilding the strategy of the forces that back the Catalan government in its attempt to hold an independence referendum. At the highest level, uncertainty over the vote’s feasibility was resolved with Artur Mas’ political sacrifice and through president Puigdemont’s determination from his Barcelona city watchtower. News of differences between ministries regarding who should take the legal brunt following the calling of the referendum gave the president and vice president Junqueras greater determination. Their alliance then spread through the entire cabinet and a good deal of the government’s higher echelons. A source familiar with the situation claims that their motto was: “if you aren’t prepared to risk anything, step aside”. One of the officials who signed the public declaration on April 21 stressing the government’s resolve to hold the referendum has stated that “this public show of faith” was the first step towards ensuring that discretion and order prevailed when taking political decisions and in strategy, ahead of disclosing the wording of the question and the referendum date before the summer break.

President Puigdemont has reminded anyone who sees snap regional polls as a possible alternative that only he can call such an election and his determination to hold an independence referendum is ironclad. Carles Puigdemont behaves like a lone marathoner whose only goal is to make it to the finish line, one step at a time, without considering the next race.

Today, more than even, the referendum strategy is in the hands of Puigdemont and Junqueras, who are working with teams of several advisors who do not communicate with one another and only get to see part of the picture. They meet without mobile phones.

The Spanish government is sticking to its legal strategy. Amid a gigantic scandal over pressuring the public prosecutor not to probe corruption cases, the pressure on the TSJC to indict the organisers of the mock referendum foretold today’s revolt of the prosecutors in Spain. The PP’s reaction to the calling of the independence vote will be key to its success and, above all, to its popular support. If Rajoy overshoots the mark, like former Foreign Minister Margallo (who openly admitted that he would rather seize and destroy the ballot boxes than negotiate a referendum), the Catalan process will be a resounding success, as even those who are critical will turn to support Puigdemont.

Mariano Rajoy will have to decide how heavy-handed his response must be. Will he unleash his vice president’s cavalry of state attorneys, whose attempt to find gullible Catalans and lure them away from the path of independence failed when none could be found? Will Rajoy up the stakes by taking over the Catalan police force? Would Madrid dare to suspend Catalan home rule? Calling an independence referendum is no mean feat, but it will be done. Spain will struggle to find an appropriate response that does not outrage the broad majority of Catalans who are in favour of voting.

Where we are headed

At present it is impossible to anticipate how the next steps of the independence process will unfold. But we do know the instruments that will certainly be required: ballot boxes and a majority. It is a well-established fact that high-running emotions do not make one more right, nor do they woo more voters. It will be necessary to watch every careful step. Catalonia’s independence process must have impeccable democratic credentials. History has shown that allowing exceptions causes democratic malformations. As for the press, neither unionist campaigns thinly veiled as reporting nor separatist fanboyism are democratic fruits that a society can be proud of. ARA will continue to focus on journalism and keeping our readers informed.

EDICIÓ PAPER 04/07/2020

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