ONLY hours after cancelling the referendum on sovereignty planned for 9 November, the Catalan president announced today that an unofficial poll will be held that same day.
President Artur Mas called off the proposed referendum after meeting with other pro-independence parties.
The poll had been ruled illegal by Spain’s constitutional court and Mr Mas has always maintained that he would not do anything illegal.
But the unofficial ballot was called “absurd”, “ridiculous” and “half-baked” by both supporters and opponents of independence. Oriol Junqueras, leader of the secessionist Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left) party (ERC) that had been propping up Mr Mas’s minority government, called for a unilateral declaration of independence.
Mr Mas, who trails Mr Junqueras in the polls, has said the only solution is to hold what he calls “a plebiscite election” with a united slate of pro-independence parties fighting a single-issue campaign. He called the elections “the definitive poll on sovereignty”.
Mr Junqueras said that, while his party would not boycott the poll, it was not the solution.
“The government itself recognises that the only solution is to hold elections,” he said.
The Catalan president says he has the authority to call the unofficial poll on 9 November under a clause in the Spanish constitution that gives political leaders the power to “facilitate the participation of citizens in political, economic, social and cultural life”. The franchise is open to anyone over 16 who presents themselves at a polling station with proof of residence. This includes Catalonia’s 1.2 million foreign residents who will not have an opportunity to vote in the “plebiscite election” as voting in autonomous elections is limited to Spanish citizens.
Miquel Iceta, leader of the Catalan socialists, denounced the poll as “a con” and said his party would not participate in a ballot “that doesn’t offer citizens any democratic guarantees”.
Joan Herrera, the Green party leader who backed the 9 November referendum, said his party would not support the unofficial ballot. “The poll has to have guarantees and credibility in the eyes of the world,” he said.
Only last week Mr Mas’s government rejected the idea of an unofficial poll for those same reasons.
The Asamblea Nacional de Catalana and organisation Omnium Cultural have offered to organise the poll. However, both are openly secessionist and a ballot organised by such partisan groups would have little credibility in Catalonia and virtually none in the rest of Spain or the wider world.
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy welcomed news that the referendum had been called off. When he later heard of the planned unofficial ballot, he said: “Sometimes good news only lasts a few hours.”
Both the Financial Times and New York Times have in the past week published editorials criticising Mr Rajoy’s obduracy, which they say is fuelling secessionist sentiment.
Mr Mas is putting pressure on his erstwhile partner, ERC, to get the vote out for the unofficial poll and also to agree to a unitary slate for an early election.
Were an election to be called tomorrow, ERC would almost certainly trounce Mr Mas’s CiU party and his political career would be all but over.
However, by calling for a united front he could still count on having a leading role in a national unity government.
There was never any doubt Madrid would declare the referendum illegal, nor that Mr Mas would preside over an act deemed unconstitutional. The unofficial ballot – if it is held – is unlikely to carry much weight.