Catalonia devises alternative to illegal poll on independence

A banned vote on independence to be held next month has been cancelled

The objective is the same, to hold a referendum, but in a different way, says the president of Catalonia Artur Mas. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

The objective is the same, to hold a referendum, but in a different way, says the president of Catalonia Artur Mas. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images


Catalonia has abandoned plans to stage an illegal referendum on independence in November, apparently averting an imminent collision with the Spanish authorities. However, the region’s government will hold an alternative vote, which it claims is legal and hopes will act as a stepping stone towards separation from Spain.

The premier of the Catalan region, Artur Mas, said yesterday that legal action taken by the central government had made the planned November 9th referendum impossible. Last month, the Constitutional Court accepted an appeal lodged by the administration of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, causing the vote to be suspended.

“The objective is the same, to hold a referendum, but in a different way,” Mas said, describing his alternative plan as a process of “civic participation” which will take place within a framework of previously existing legislation.

“We’re not going to make it easy for the [Spanish] state. We’re going to do it in a different way in order to know people’s opinion,” he said, adding that 20,000 volunteers would help organise the vote.

Marathon talks

His appearance yesterday in the regional presidency building, alone beside a large Catalan flag, highlighted Mas’s apparent political isolation. However, he called on the other secessionist groups to join his party on a shared electoral platform, with the aim of calling early elections in the northeastern region, which would act as a plebiscite on independence. Such elections, he said, would represent a “definitive” and legal referendum, although he did not mention when they might take place.

“This is the instrument that they most fear in Madrid: elections with a joint platform,” he said. “If that shared platform wins an absolute majority, then we will have won the referendum and everybody will see it that way.”

The Spanish state, Mas, said, was “the real adversary”. He and other pro-independence campaigners complain that the relatively wealthy Catalonia pays more in taxes than it receives in investment from the Spanish treasury. They also say Madrid has failed to deliver on countless political agreements. In September, an estimated 1.8 million people took to the streets of Barcelona to demand the right to vote on their future.

Mas’s decision to announce the alternative vote took many observers by surprise, including, it seemed, other pro-independence parties such as the powerful Catalan Republican Left (ERC).

Improvisation claims

Alfred BoschThe Irish Times

“Our plan is [independence], as always. We’re not so concerned with the path as the final destination, as long as it’s democratic,” Bosch added.

Other, smaller, pro-independence parties, such as the ICV greens and the left-leaning CUP, were dismissive of the new plan.

Meanwhile, Rajoy initially welcomed the fact that the original referendum had been cancelled as “excellent news”. But after details of Mas’s alternative vote emerged, his central government went on the offensive and said it would look closely at the project’s legality.

“[Mas] is looking for a way to avoid looking bad,” said Alicia Sánchez-Camacho of the governing Popular Party (PP). “He knows he can’t hold a referendum. The Catalans know the process has finished.”

While there is still confusion surrounding the nature of the new referendum plan, relations between Catalonia and Madrid remain as tense as they have been for the last few months.

“In terms of resolving this conflict, we’re probably worse off than we were a couple of days ago, because it seems as if nothing will stop the independence movement,” said Fernando Vallespín, a political scientist at Madrid’s Autónoma University. He says the alternative referendum will carry little weight, although regional elections used as an independence plebiscite would be much more significant.