Catalan government assigns team of top officials to prepare referendum

The Catalan executive opens the first contract (to supply envelopes and ballot slips) for bidding

“Everything is ready to hold the independence referendum”. That’s what the vice-president of the Catalan government, Oriol Junqueras, told ARA in an interview last Sunday. This preparatory work has been carried out by the consultation’s coordination team within the government. According to several sources spoken to by this newspaper, the government has formed an informal body, comprised of the chiefs of staff of the departments directly involved with the referendum, who meet periodically with other top officials who will assume direct responsibility for the voting process.

This is the team that is preparing the necessary documentation, handling unexpected events and thinking about the day after the referendum. They are the ones following the flow of the preparations, with the advantage of being the link between the political leadership and the experts of each government department. The objective of their meetings is to coordinate the necessary tasks to prepare for the vote. According to our sources, these meetings started in October, but have ramped up since February. Now that the budgets have been approved, they assume that the meetings will gather even more speed.

Our sources claim that there is already a plan in place for the bidding for the relevant contracts ready to be activated once it is authorised by the cabinet. While some technical loose ends are still to be finalised, the debate is now centred on two main questions: the first, who will take responsibility for the vote; and the second, how to organise the bidding for the contracts.

As for the responsibility for the referendum, there is still no consensus within the government. The debate is as to whether ministers or chiefs of staff in charge of the organisation will be legally exposed, or whether responsibility is to be shared by all. Moreover, not all of the leading officials are currently convinced that running the bidding process via a government agreement is the best option. Regardless, any doubt will be resolved soon, because the number of open contracts will multiply in the coming weeks.

Collective responsibility

On this point, an amendment to the law accompanying the 2017 budget proposed at the eleventh hour by the governing Junts pel Sí coalition is key. This rule, passed by the Parliament last Wednesday, establishes that the government as a whole “may act as a hiring body” when it comes to “great strategic projects of a horizontal nature and of special transcendence”. In other words, the executive can open bidding processes through a government agreement to assume joint responsibility, just as will be done, according to Junqueras, when the referendum is formally called. Joint decisions first have to pass through the technical council, a body comprised of the chiefs of staff of the different departments which deals with the questions considered by the cabinet every Tuesday. This is an ordinary body that forms part of the administrative system. Their work is not mixed with that of the team preparing the referendum.

As for the contracting methods, according to government sources, there will be contracts that go through the government, others which will be sorted out by the hiring bodies of the different government departments and it has even been suggested that civil servants take on some of the work that would usually be outsourced. Whatever happens, until the law of disconnection is passed, the requests for bids will not mention a referendum, but rather potential elections (or a consultation, not a referendum) to cover their backs in the face of potential legal challenges. Junqueras himself, speaking on Catalunya Ràdio, said that the referendum process would resemble a normal election cycle as closely as possible. Despite the road map stating that the disconnection law must protect the referendum legally, before it is officially called, the Catalan government have to fit the preparations within Spanish law.

Envelopes and ballot slips

Against this background, the government last Wednesday opened for bidding an outline agreement to provide election material (envelopes and ballot slips) for hypothetical parliamentary elections. This was done by the Governance Ministry whilst the chamber was passing the 2017 budget. Publicly, the government’s justification is that this contract is needed to cover unexpected parliamentary elections. As confirmed by government sources to this newspaper, it is the first contract that could be used for the independence referendum. The outline agreement is divided into four sections: one for envelopes, another for ballot slips, a third for the instruction manuals for polling office staff and a final one for electoral forms. Businesses wishing to bid on this contract have until 3 May. The contract lasts for four years with a total estimated cost just shy of 900,000 euros.

The advantage of this process, different to a normal request for tender, is that it is a competition to authorise a small number of companies that the government can turn to whenever necessary, without having to organise a public tender for every specific event. As such, according to the experts consulted, they will be able to order sets of envelopes and ballot slips from the businesses when needed quickly and more efficiently

What’s more, the Catalan government also has some leeway to alter the task: according to the administrative clauses, the specific material “remains subject to the needs of the Governance Ministry” which, currently, “cannot precisely define when this framework agreement will be called up”. In other words, the executive branch can decide that the businesses will provide material for something other than an election. In any case, sources suggest the possibility that the government will put out another request for tender for election materials in case there are problems with the first process.

The legal protection of the consultation

If the intention is to hold the referendum sometime during “the end of summer and the start of autumn”, as president Carles Puigdemont has stated, the tenders for technical and logistical support contracts should start no later than May. “Requests for tender will start to arrive from now”, assure government sources.  

According to parliamentary sources, the referendum will be officially convened immediately after the parliament approves the law of disconnection, which the government believes will see the start of the real clash with Spain. The date for the referendum is expected to be announced in the coming months, once the work of the Pact for the Referendum is complete. According to Junts pel Sí’s theory, the law has to include, for example, the administration of the vote and the rules to be able to call it. In the event of a Yes win, the government plans to implement the result and work towards Catalonia becoming an independent country, despite foreseeable opposition from Spain. The referendum’s coordinating team is already working to prepare for all eventualities.

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