“Do you want Catalonia to be an independent country in the form of a republic?" This is the question –in Catalan, Spanish and Occitan– that will be put to the Catalan people in the independence referendum on 1 October. It was announced on Friday by the president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, alongside Vice-president Oriol Junqueras, the rest of the cabinet and MPs from the ruling Junts pel Sí and CUP coalitions. Therefore, the countdown has begun to finish all the preparations for a vote which faces, for a start, belligerent opposition from the Spanish authorities. Puigdemont and Junqueras strongly criticised Madrid this Friday for having ignored Catalonia’s requests in the last few years.
On 21 April, when the government in full renewed its commitment to hold a referendum, a photo was taken in the Pati dels Tarongers, in the historic government palace. Last Friday the Catalan executive and pro-independence MPs returned to the same courtyard for another large group photo, a symbol of another step forward in the independence process, which is now staring down its final straight with a date marked in red on the calendar. "It’s the Catalan people’s turn to decide their future. It’s in their hands, in all our hands, to make it possible", said Puigdemont, who called for "the collective assumption, with the utmost dignity and thoroughness, of an inalienable right on which the edifice of democracy rests".
The announcement of the date and the question —not accompanied by the signing of any document or agreement— means another step on the unilateral path. Although the Catalan government is, sceptically, leaving the door open for the Spanish state to change course and come to the table to negotiate the referendum, last Friday’s event marked the end of the road for the negotiated path. Both Puigdemont and Junqueras took aim at Madrid for dodging the issue.
While addressing those who say the referendum should be brought before the Spanish parliament, Puigdemont emphasised that all the proposals that Catalonia has presented so far to the Spanish government or Madrid’s parliament "have been rejected or vastly diluted". "We’ve had a long and disappointing series of 'noes' from the Spanish government and the parliament to all the proposals to resolve the conflict through dialogue and compromise", the president lamented, criticising Madrid for its unresponsiveness in the last 40 years, since then Catalan president Josep Tarradellas returned from exile at the end of the Franco dictatorship.
Puigdemont went further still, noting that "the only thing that hasn’t been voted on is the Spanish government’s proposal for Catalonia". "Maybe because there isn’t one nor is one expected", he wondered out loud; he stressed that it is not a question of legal frameworks, but of political will. He also noted that it was the Spanish president himself, Mariano Rajoy, who admitted recently in Sitges, near Barcelona, that he won’t authorise a referendum because he doesn’t want to and he can’t. "It’s better not to turn up at the altar with an 'I don’t'", he said sarcastically. In this context, recalling his commitment dating from last September’s confidence vote in the Catalan parliament, Puigdemont went on to announce the date and question to "together ratify the exercising of the legitimate right to self-determination that a 1,000-year-old nation has".
114 intense days
Earlier, vice-president Junqueras had also taken aim at a "state that is antidemocratic in the exercise of its functions". He had been tasked with opening this Friday’s ceremony and emphasised the "democratic mandate" which the citizens gave the government in the Catalan elections on 27 September 2015 and the way the Spanish government has done everything in its power to stop the citizens of Catalonia from deciding their future at the ballot box. Junqueras decried the Spanish executive for employing its power “anti-democratically" and against the interests of the Catalan people, not only in regards to a referendum "that has been rejected up to 18 times" in the last few years.
He pointed out that "the Spanish government violates fundamental democratic rights, it has ministers who conspire directly against the Catalan health system and order the fabrication of false evidence against Catalonia’s elected political representatives". According to Junqueras, the social security deficit —"estimated by the relevant agencies at around 15 billion euros a year”— doesn’t guarantee the retirement pensions of either the Catalans or the rest of the citizens of Spain. What’s more, "[the Spanish government] keeps protecting the interests of a few against the needs of the immense majority, like with the Castor project" and doesn’t "set aside" investments for the Mediterranean railway corridor.
Junqueras also brought up the appeals to the Constitutional Court against Catalan laws like that of effective gender equality and another which aimed to protect the rights of citizens struggling with energy and/or housing poverty. In short, a series of affronts that "damage social justice and the country’s economic interests".
Ahead, therefore, lie 114 intense days in which the Catalan government will have to dodge all the obstacles that Madrid —which has turned the Constitutional Court and the state prosecutor’s office into its main weapons against the independence process— is sure to put in their way. They will have to get to work on aspects like logistics (ballot boxes, polling stations, the electoral roll), the legal protection for the vote and the parliamentary approval of the law that will provide the transition to independence
The inclusion or not in the wording of the question of the concept of the 'republic' was one of the few aspects that stirred a debate during negotiations which have been, in general, placid. The pressure from the CUP was more focused on hastening the announcement of the date and question to “bring elements of credibility” to the independence process after the passing of the 2017 budget and less on the content of the announcement itself. Sources from the different pro-independence parties say that, in the end, no one would have dropped their support for the referendum over the date or question. This gave Puigdemont who, despite listening to everyone, mainly conducted the debate in private, a certain amount of room for manoeuvre.
However, during these months, there has indeed been a conversation about the relative benefits of including or omitting the word 'republic' from the question. Its inclusion was viewed positively by ERC and the CUP, who saw it as a way to attract participation by Comuns voters, but it elicited opposition from some elements within the PDECat, suspicious of the historical connotations (memories of the Spanish Civil War) which they believe it has. That said, however, no one wanted to turn the matter into a major debate.
 The Castor project is a currently suspended engineering project to build a strategic store for natural gas off the Spanish coast in the south of Catalonia. The Mediterranean corridor is a planned updated rail link from Andalusia in the south, up the east of Spain, through Catalonia to connect with France and the rest of the continent.