Catalan leader wants sovereignty vote to be recognized beyond Spain

Regional premier Carles Puigdemont plans to hold independence referendum in September 2017

Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont in the regional parliament on Wednesday.
Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont in the regional parliament on Wednesday.

Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont’s plan for an independence referendum, which he announced on Wednesday, opens up a new possibility that even members of his own government have lately been skeptical about.

Speaking in the regional parliament, Puigdemont said he wanted to hold a referendum in September 2017. But after what seemed like an extended hand to his partners of the radical CUP party, the premier then warned that the latter must not prevent approval of the Catalan budget, or he will call early elections and put the independence process on hold.

When Crimea called a referendum to secede from Ukraine, the Venice Commission called it unconstitutional

Puigdemont also reached out to the central government, saying it would be best to agree on a negotiated referendum. But then he added that “this proposal does not expire, but it does not paralyze us, either,” suggesting that the vote will go ahead with or without Madrid’s support.

Up until a few weeks ago, members of the regional executive and leaders of the Catalan Democratic Party – formerly known as Convergència – had doubted the wisdom of proposing a unilateral referendum.

Their misgivings were based on the results of an earlier “popular consultation” held on November 9, 2014. The premier at the time, Artur Mas, is under court investigation for alleged crimes of disobedience against the Spanish state, along with his deputy and two other top aides.

Although 1.8 million people voted in favor of independence at the time, representing over a third of all eligible voters, the informal ballot was considered invalid by most outside observers for a variety of reasons.

The non-binding consultation was not based on an official voter roll, nor did it have the necessary democratic guarantees. Most opponents of independence stayed home as a sign of protest.

Despite warnings from the Constitutional Court, the vote went ahead anyway, although regional officials delegated organizational duties on civil groups in a bid to deflect legal responsibility.

International legitimacy

Now, Puigdemont seems bent on holding a new vote – but one that international observers will grant legitimacy to.

To do that, the Catalan government must make sure that detractors of independence will also go to the polls. This is one of the basic conditions set out by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which works on referendum-related issues and has participated in a similar process in Montenegro.

When Crimea called a referendum to secede from Ukraine, the Venice Commission said that it was unconstitutional.

In order to get the green light from this and other international groups, the Catalan government needs to guarantee a valid voter roll, create something like an election board, and ensure that government officials would be free from prosecution by the Spanish state. Additionally, it needs to release funds to finance the referendum, and this point would surely be contested by Madrid before the Constitutional Court.

Puigdemont himself has admitted that holding a new vote will be difficult, and that the best way to do so would be to strike a deal with the central government in Madrid.

But the Popular Party (PP), a staunch defender of national unity, is unlikely to change its views in the coming months. And if Spain holds a third national election in December, as seems increasingly likely, surveys indicate that the PP will win again, possibly by an even higher margin.

English version by Susana Urra.

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