The Puigdemont factor (Politico)
The Catalan president has proved he is serious about independence, but many obstacles remain in his way.
The president of Catalonia is not just betting big on a referendum, he’s betting on a referendum that there’s a chance his government may not even be in a position to hold at all.
Carles Puigdemont, the ninth president of Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia since 1931, has promised to hold a binding referendum on independence on October 1 and then to lead the Catalan people to secession if a majority of voters back that option, setting himself and his government on a collision course with conservative Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Even if Puigdemont succeeds in holding the October vote, it is likely that the referendum will be downplayed as a protest vote by Rajoy’s government, which is determined to keep the kingdom united and is supported in this endeavor by a majority in the Spanish parliament.
Puigdemont himself, however, has all the single-minded clarity of someone seeking to fulfill the dream of his youth.
“On October 1 there will be ballot boxes, there will be ballot papers, there will be a census, and I’m almost certain that there will be no one in Catalonia who ignores that a referendum is taking place and what is being decided in that referendum,” Puigdemont told POLITICO in an interview.
If he succeeds to further his cause, even his political rivals recognize it will largely be down to his own political will.
“The human and unpredictable factor is Puigdemont,” said Lluís Rabell, the speaker in the Catalan parliament for the leftist alliance Catalunya Sí que es Pot (Catalonia Yes We Can), describing the Catalan president as someone “who may currently be imbued of a political mission … and be willing to personally assume the consequences that [such a mission] may lead to.”
Commitment to the cause
The 54-year-old wasn’t a candidate for the presidency in the regional elections in 2015, when pro-independence parties won an absolute majority of seats in the regional chamber. He took office after the anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) — whose 10 seats placed them in the position of kingmaker in coalition wrangling that lasted three months — vetoed the former president and Puigdemont’s fellow party member, Artur Mas.
Puigdemont signaled his determination to go ahead with his plans this month by dismissing five members of his cabinet, all belonging to his center-right Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT). One had publicly expressed doubts about the feasibility of the ballot and his readiness to face possible judicial sanctions. Others are thought to have raised similar concerns in private talks with the Catalan leader. The chief of the regional police and other officials also resigned after the restructuring.
The move — and the president’s defiant attitude toward Madrid — have earned him the respect of even the most hard-line secessionists.
Laia Pèlach, a local councilor for the CUP in Girona who knew Puigdemont when he was the mayor of the city, said she was always certain of his commitment to the secessionist cause. Her party’s only doubt was whether the Catalan leader would be able to confront people inside his party “who we had always thought were going to back down at some point.”
Puigdemont’s commitment to independence goes back a long way. While working as a young journalist in the 1990s, Puigdemont traveled across Europe exploring regions imbibed with their own distinct identity. His travels — to South Tyrol, Sardinia, the Flemish Region, Occitania and Corsica — convinced him that the European Union must do more to reduce the role of nation states in the hope that those “national realities might eventually emerge with a little more personality.”
“We contemplate the Catalan state as an instrument to better serve our citizens, not as a goal in itself,” Puigdemont said. “If in 30 or 50 years the EU is the only state that should exist, in Catalonia we’ll have no trouble with that,” he said. “The state is a human convention, it stems from an agreement and this agreement can be renewed or not.”
The government in Madrid had long hoped divisions among factions in the Catalan pro-independence forces and the reluctance of top officials to risk judicial sanctions would undermine the secessionist process, but Puigdemont’s cabinet shakeup has been interpreted as a no-return point.
“There’s one goal and a group of fanatics ready to accomplish that goal,” said José Luis Ayllón, state secretary for court relations and one of Rajoy’s cabinet members most involved in tackling the Catalan challenge.
Yet for all the defiant statements of pro-independence forces, the Catalan government has yet to take most of the legal steps needed to organize the logistics for a referendum and formally call the ballot. The Catalan chamber — where pro-secessionist parties hold a majority of seats — hasn’t even approved the law that is supposed to set the legal foundations for the vote.