Artur Mas, who fought a single-issue campaign around self-determination last autumn, has backed away from holding a referendum in September 2014, and has announced earlier this week that it will be held simply “within this legislature”.
The term, in the increasingly unlikely event that Mr Mas were to survive it, expires in 2016.
At a press conference in which he finally announced his political programme six months after taking office, the Catalan president said that he would not seek fast-track independence, nor make a unilateral declaration of independence, and emphasised that it was vital to enter into dialogue with the Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy.
“I don’t want to put forward the argument that ‘we don’t want this’ because it’s not a good framework, but then nor is ‘we won’t negotiate’,” Mr Mas said.
However, Mr Rajoy and his centralist Partido Popular is adamantly opposed discussing changes to the constitutional framework of the Spanish state.
On Thursday, the Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, said in an interview that the Spanish constitution “guarantees that Spain is indivisible”.
There are other reason for Mr Mas getting cold feet over independence. A poll published last week showed that were elections held tomorrow, his Convergència i Unió coalition (CiU) would come second for the first time in its history.
Furthermore, it would not lose to the Socialists, until very recently the other main political force, but to Esquerra Republicana (ERC), the hardline separatists.
Mr Mas, also chairman of the liberal nationalist CDC, appears to have concluded that he faces a double mutiny among CiU voters.
On the one hand, wealthy and conservative voters who oppose independence are jumping ship in favour of pro-status quo parties while, on the other, those in favour are opting to vote for the red-blooded separatism of ERC rather than CiU’s tepid nationalism.
Mr Mas called an early election last November in the hope of gaining the six extra seats he needed to win an absolute majority. In the end, he came away with ten fewer than he started with. Now, he and his party face outright defeat.
Mr Mas is in power through the grace of ERC, which voted for him in the investiture while refusing to join a formal coalition for fear of dirtying its hands with unpopular public spending cuts. (Mr Mas has announced his programme but he still cannot agree a budget.)
From the start, ERC, suddenly in rude political health after years in the wilderness, tied its support for Mr Mas to a single demand: a referendum in 2014 and to hell with Madrid.
Mr Mas is now backing away from that commitment precisely at the moment when his junior “coalition” partner is beating him in the polls.
He is now asking both ERC and the Socialists to formally join him in coalition for the good of the nation.
Socialist spokesman Maurici Lucena said his party would only enter into coalition “if the priority was to deal with the crisis” and not self-determination.
Oriol Junqueras, the ERC leader, takes the opposite line. He says that Mr Mas is wrong to rule out a unilateral declaration of independence.
“I don’t rule out any democratic route,” he said, adding that he would consider joining Mr Mas in a coalition once “there is an agreed date for the consultation on independence” and a clear question that would produce “an explicit response”.
Meanwhile, Luís Salvadó, secretary-general of ERC, said that if Mr Mas tries to postpone the referendum beyond 2014 his party will no longer support the government.