The government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is determined to prevent the Catalan regional government from holding any kind of referendum on independence for the northeastern region: informal, non-binding, online or otherwise, and will use “all the means within its reach to avoid the international image of Spain as a country where laws are not respected,” says an unnamed senior government source. The ruling Popular Party has already drawn up plans to cover any eventuality.
The central government in Madrid reportedly has a secret memorandum on what action different ministries can take, should the regional government in Barcelona attempt to hold the independence referendum is has planned for late September.
The preparations could also involve the central government’s delegation to the Catalan regional government, along with the security forces.
Have no doubt that the nation’s government will take all measures it needs to take Juan Ignacio Zoido, Interior Minister
“This time, there will be no ballot boxes or polling stations,” says a senior figure in the Rajoy administration, explaining that when the Catalan regional government – known as the Generalitat – held an informal referendum on November 9, 2014 that had been ruled illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court, the authorities turned a blind eye to avoid direct confrontation at a time when there was strong support for independence, with huge numbers of people turning out for street marches to demand a break with Spain.
The feeling now in Madrid is that the mood has changed in Catalonia, supported by recent opinion polls showing that the percentage of people backing independence has fallen. Furthermore, there is awareness in the government of the damage done to Spain’s international reputation by television footage seen around the world of a part of the country organizing an illegal referendum that not only impacted on the unity of the country, but also on the European Union.
Oriol Junqueras, the Catalan regional deputy premier, who has been tasked with getting a referendum ready, has been saying since March that “everything is prepared” and earlier this month, the Generalitat put out a tender for ballot boxes, albeit pointing out that they could be used for local elections.
“We are not going to permit this and we will do whatever it takes to prevent it, and the state has a great deal of democratic power,” says another senior government member. Officials in Madrid say that the Generalitat has been warned, as have civil servants in Catalonia, of their responsibilities and to reply in writing to instructions they receive. Businesses involved in making ballot boxes and in vote counting have also been advised of the legal repercussions of taking part in an illegal referendum.
Earlier this week, Rajoy issued an invitation to the Catalan regional premier, Carles Puigdemont, to debate his government’s plans in Congress, albeit in the certainty that he would not accept. The idea was to send a message that it is not just the government that refuses to accept “threats and blackmail” but also the country’s main political parties, including the Socialists (PSOE).
Rajoy has told his team of his concern about the way the Catalan authorities are moving toward a point of no return, as outlined in the secret document outlining its independence plans reported on by EL PAÍS earlier this week. Under those plans, a unilateral declaration of independence would not be subject to any kind of debate by opposition parties in Catalonia.
Cabinet members are on message regarding what Rajoy is calling a “coup d’état” as in “the worse dictatorships.” Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido was asked on national radio this week if the government’s plans to block the proposed referendum in Catalonia included taking control of the region’s devolved police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. “Have no doubts whatsoever that the state, the nation’s government, will take all measures it needs to take. Have no doubt whatsoever,” he replied.
English version by Nick Lyne.