Catalonia gears up for independence referendum, unanswered questions remain

Government clears hurdles, Spain insists “illegal” vote cannot be held · Speaking to Nationalia, Law Professor Daniel Turp says campaign “should start as soon as possible”, advises independence camp to “put emphasis on positive aspects of independence”

Author: Elaine Larkin.
After both pro-independence parties in the Catalan Parliament —big-tent alliance Together for Yes and democratic socialist CUP— last week agreed to approve the 2017 budget law, the government of Catalonia is confirming that a referendum on the country's independence from Spain will be held in September at the latest. The Catalan government is even hinting at the possibility that the vote is brought forward to June or July, if "circumstances" advise it.

The Catalan referendum is rejected by the Spanish government, which deems it "illegal" and says it will not be held. Madrid took a similar stance on a previous, non-binding vote on independence that was finally held on 9 November 2014, even if Spanish authorities had warned they would not allow it to happen.

The Catalan government now says the 2014 vote —which saw 2.3 million voting, 81% of them for full independence from Spain— was some sort of preparation for the 2017 one, which will be "legitimate, legal, with full democratic guarantees, effective and binding", according to words by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont speaking last week at a European Parliament event.

Catalan government sources say the referendum and its related campaign "are being actively prepared". Catalan Vicepresident Oriol Junqueras yesterday said an official campaign "to foster participation" in the referendum will most likely be unveiled in the upcoming weeks or months.

However, unanswered questions remain on the table regarding what the referendum timetable will be, who will lead the "no to independence" campaign —none of the main unionist parties regards the vote as legitimate—, what the turnout will be, or what the real effects of the vote might be after it is held. The Catalan government says it plans to pass a Law on legal transience that declares Catalonia a republic, thus amounting to a de facto declaration of independence. The law was agreed by Together for Yes and CUP in December 2016. This, according to the Catalan authorities, will legalize the referendum vote and the subsequent road to independence, if "yes" wins the most votes.

Speaking to Nationalia, Professor of Law Jorge Cagiao said the referendum will not be the definitive one that "resolves the [Catalonia-Spain] dispute" if "[popular] participation lacks, if not enough guarantees of implementation exist, and if no active campaign is held". According to Cagiao, "one of the main problems" for its legitimacy would be the absence of a "no" campaign, which cannot be ruled out, as "for the unionist camp, not taking part [in the referendum] is still its most effective as it detracts a lot of strength and credibility to the campaign itself."

Professor of Political Science Ivan Serrano says that a "yes" win in the referendum will "at least" show that "a clear democratic mandate" for independence exists, but he concedes that the result "might no be implemented from day 1" as outstanding issues such as "control of infrastructures, monopoly of violence or collection of taxes" might not be solved in the short term.

Researcher on stateless nationalism and political parties Núria Franco-Guillén on the other hand says it would be advisable to hold a public consultation on citizen's preferences on the features of any future Catalan state: "This should have already been done by the Catalan administration", the researcher says.

(More thoughts by all three experts can be found in the Catalan language version of this article.)

A questionnaire to Professor of International and Constitutional Law Daniel Turp

To get a deeper insight on the issue, Nationalia has sent a questionnaire to Professor of International and Constitutional Law Daniel Turp. Turp is a former Bloc Québécois and Parti Québécois MP and currently heads the Montreal-based Research Institute on Self-Determination of Peoples and National Independence (IRAI). His answers are as follows.

Nationalia: No more than seven months are left for September 2017. That is the date the Catalan Government intends to hold a referendum on independence from Spain. Is it reasonable to foresee that a proper campaign can be held, bearing in mind both the fact that the Spanish Government will seek to block the vote and the fact that the time left until the date is not so long?

Daniel Turp: Yes, but it should start as soon as possible, in an unofficial manner. The experience of the two Quebec referendums of 1980 and 1995 shows that the official referendum campaign should be preceded by a pre-campaign during which several issues relating to the accession of independence would be discussed publicly in order to allow the official campaign to focus on some key and decisive questions. The Scottish experience shows that a pre-campaign —which in the case of Scotland began two years before the September 18 2014 referendum— increased significantly the support given to the "yes" campaign.

In the case of Catalonia, I would suggest a pre-campaign extend on a period on six months. So let’s say the referendum on the independence of Catalonia is to be held on Sunday September 24th 2017 and the official campaign begins on September 11th 2017,  the pre-campaign should begin on Sunday March 11, 2017!

N: Related to the previous question, a very specific issue of the Catalan referendum as things stand now is the lack of an organized group of parties, associations or even individuals willing to organize themselves into a "no" campaign. Would be advisable that the Catalan Government somewhat "fostered" the establishment of such a "no" campaign if it does not spontaneously emerge? Where should the balance be set between the pursuit for referendum credibility and a potential boycott strategy by independence opponents?

D. T.: It would not be advisable that the Catalan Government  to  "foster"  the establishment of such a "no" campaign. Yet, it should "challenge" public the people that oppose the independence of Catalonia to form such a group. The referendum legislation should contain provisions, if such is not to case, to give means to the "no" to participate in the referendum. You will find enclosed in annex 1 the provisions of the Quebec Referendum Act which contains provisions relating to the "National Committees", a "Referendum Fund" and the "Government Subsidy" which could provide incentives for those people that oppose Catalonia’s independence to create a "National Committee"... which could be funded and even receive a government subsidy.

N: One of the most important reference documents in Europe as regards the holding of referendums is the Code of Good Practice on Referendums, adopted by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission in 2007. The text highlights the principle of a balanced information for voters —so that they can make an informed choice— which should be provided by authorities themselves. The Venice Commission suggests that authorities provide the voters with an "explanatory report setting out not only their viewpoint or that of persons sharing it, but also the opposing viewpoint, in a balanced way," and it also says that "electors must be informed of the impact of their votes, and thus of the effects of the referendum". It also provides for "equality between the proposal’s supporters and opponents in public radio and television broadcasts". Bearing in mind the two previous questions, what is the likelihood for all these principles being properly fulfilled in due time?

D. T.: Theses principles need to be respected in order to demonstrate the willingness of the Government of Catalonia to abide by the Venice Commission’s Code of Conduct and its intention of campaigning with due regard to the principle of balanced information. Again, the Quebec Referendum Act could be a source of inspiration inasmuch as it affirms, under the heading "Right to Information" and in its article 26 provides, the following :

"Not later than ten days before the holding of a poll, the chief electoral officer must send the electors a single booklet explaining each of the options submitted to the referendum, wherein the text is established by each national committee, respectively. Equal space, as fixed by the chief electoral officer, must be given in this booklet to each option. […]"

The single booklet was sent by the Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec 10 days before the October 30, 1995 referendum in Quebec.

N: You are very well acquainted with the Catalan process towards independence, having followed it since the first unofficial, municipal, popular vote was held in 2009. You also took an active role in the independence referendum campaign in Quebec in 1995, and you also witnessed the vote in Scotland in 2014. Those two votes were fundamentally different from the Catalan referendum in that the governments of the sovereign states (Canada and the UK) agreed to their holding. Even so, are there lessons to be learnt by Catalonia as regards their campaigns? 

D. T.:  The main lesson to be learned from the Quebec referendum campaigns is that you have to start a campaign as as soon possible, and before it officially  begins. And that you have to be ready to deal with the "dirty tricks" of your opponent. In this Trump era of "false news" and "alternative facts", the campaign organizers should prepare people to deal with "dirty tricks", "false news" and "alternative facts". Preemptive strikes should be taken so that the citizens called to vote will become, to some extent, politically immunize to such tricks, news and facts. Concerning the Scotland campaign, the great lesson to be learned is that the tone of the campaign should be essentially positive. The emphasis should be put on the positive aspects to Catalonia’s accession to independence, rather than on the past and historical —however legitimate— grievances against Spain and, even more specifically against its past and present leaders.