Puigdemont and Junqueras clear purchase of ballot boxes for referendum

The Governance department will put out to tender, via a framework agreement, the purchase of 8,000 ballot boxes

The Catalan government will have its own ballot boxes for the September independence referendum. President Carles Puigdemont and vice-president Oriol Junqueras have cleared one of most urgent issues four months ahead of the vote. The Governance department will soon open the bidding process for the contract, putting an end to the internal disagreements that had delayed the purchase, as the Catalan TV station TV3 reported yesterday.

8,000 ballot boxes will be needed, about the same number used for regional elections although, according to government sources, they won’t be bought immediately. They have chosen to use a “framework agreement”, with which the Governance department will now select the companies that could be entrusted with the contract, but it will be up to the Cabinet, that is, the president and his ministers, to formalise the purchase when they deem it appropriate. This means the legal responsibility for acquiring the ballot boxes will fall clearly within the walls of the room where the ministers meet every Tuesday.

This process solves the disagreements that ARA detailed four weeks ago. It was at a meeting between the president, vice-president and other top officials of their parties that they resolved the tensions within the government. Puigdemont and Junqueras meet three times a week, alone or with other leaders of the independence process, to analyse the preparations.

What was the hurdle stalling the purchase of the ballot boxes? Top officials from the Governance department didn’t want to take direct responsibility for their purchase, as it had been decided to collectively approve all decisions to do with the referendum. The problem was that some officials thought it wasn’t clear enough that the decision was being taken collectively. As revealed by ARA, the Government’s agreement of 21 March already urged all ministries to “immediately” start the bidding processes necessary to “streamline electoral expenses”, a term chosen to obscure the preparations for the referendum. This was an agreement taken jointly by the entire cabinet, but purchasing ballot boxes —an unprecedented decision— made the Governance department doubt whether it could be included within a resolution to minimise expenses.

The solution found by Puigdemont and Junqueras is to carry it out in two stages, one led by the Governance department and the other by the whole government. The Cabinet has had the power to award contracts since the approval of the latest Catalan budget, thanks to a last-minute amendment introduced by the ruling Junts pel Sí coalition to the accompanying law. Sources state that this will be the course taken in the coming weeks to sign the contracts necessary to carry out the vote.
As revealed by this newspaper, the government will not mention the referendum in any request for bids. The document for the ballot boxes, to be published in the next few days in the Diari Oficial de la Generalitat de Catalunya (the Catalan government’s official gazette), will refer to hypothetical parliamentary elections and to the executive’s powers to hold popular consultations. This is the method chosen by the executive to protect itself against its shadowing Spanish prosecutors, who already weeks ago opened a case to determine whether the Catalan government is preparing a referendum that the Spanish Constitutional Court has already said is illegal.

The thesis of Puigdemont’s government is that, as long as the tenders are protected by the government’s powers in electoral matters, the public prosecutor will be unable to take action. It will be a different matter when the September referendum is officially called and the preparations for the vote might be liable to being stopped by the prosecutor.

Sources with knowledge of the independence process state that the purchase of ballot boxes is a first step leading to the rest of the necessary preparations for the referendum. There are several meetings between all the agents of the independence process and Junts pel Sí sources claim that the process is now “reaching cruising speed” and that there’s “coordination” between all its actors. They warn that “intense weeks are coming”.   

There will be further tenders and the unilateral path to the referendum will be activated once the Pact for the Referendum finishes its job collecting signatures in support of a vote agreed with Madrid. As president Puigdemont announced at the Catalan National Assembly’s General Meeting, in the coming days the Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy, will receive a Catalan proposal to “exercise self-determination”. If the Spanish state shuns this request once again, the Catalan government plans to set a course straight towards the vote: they will announce the referendum question and date, the second fortnight of September at the latest.

Moving away from 9N, the 2014 unofficial referendum

Previously the Catalan government had used ballot boxes provided by the Spanish authorities in elections, even though it is legally allowed to buy its own. Other Spanish regions, like Andalusia, have had their own since 2000. The Catalan government is fully aware that they can’t count on Spanish ballot boxes for the referendum.

“This time, we can’t use cardboard ballot boxes”, explained a source to ARA. Distancing themselves from the idea that the government is running a second non-binding vote has been an obsession for Puigdemont and Junqueras. Acrylic ballot boxes, the same type used in any other vote, were essential to give it credibility. With no agreement with Madrid, the Catalan government is aware that it will be very difficult to scrupulously complete all the steps they would follow in the case of a vote with an agreement in place, but they’ll try to come as close as possible to it. There are four months to go before the referendum and the members of the government and leaders of the parties and other groups agree that there is no stopping now. The first test will come in the form of ballot boxes.

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