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Catalans’ wish to vote unstoppable: Carles Puigdemont

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the president of Catalonia discusses a looming referendum to break away from Spain.

The wish of Catalans to vote in a banned referendum on breaking away from Spain “is unstoppable”, Carles Puigdemont, the region’s president, has told Al Jazeera, even as Spanish authorities step up efforts to stop the poll from happening.

The central government in Madrid has mobilised thousands of police to the northeastern region to stop the referendum, while the country’s Constitutional Court suspended the vote after authorities challenged its legality.

Speaking to Al Jazeera’s John Hendren on the eve of the poll, Puigdemont said: “referendums are not carried out by the courts or the police.”

“It’s voters who make up a referendum,” he added. “The wish to vote is unstoppable. You cannot put a brake on it.”

If it takes place, Sunday’s vote will be the region’s second referendum on independence in three years. The previous ballot, a non-binding vote in November 2014, returned an 80 percent result in favour of an independent Catalan state. However, less than half of the 5.4 million eligible voters participated.

Puigdemont’s interview, edited for clarity and brevity, can be read below. 

Al Jazeera: In 2014’s non-binding referendum, you had 2.4 million people voting. Now, the Spanish government wants to dramatically minimise that and delegitimise the whole process. So, technically, how can the vote take place? 

Carles Puigdemont: Spain never authorised any referendum or any consultation, even on a non-binding nature.

But one important thing has happened in the past few days. There is a new wide-ranging majority in Catalonia which has grown and wants to vote – be it “Yes” or “No” – and this is unstoppable.

READ MORE: Catalonia independence referendum – All you need to know

Referendums are not carried out by the courts or the police – it’s voters who make up a referendum. The wish to vote is unstoppable, you cannot put a brake on it.

Today the debate is not between “Yes” or “No”, it’s above all between those who wish to create a new, modern state right from the grassroots or to continue with an authoritarian state which can cut back on our freedom and liberties, and compel us to continue forming part of this state.

Al Jazeera: There is really no campaign in favour of “No”, so how do you ensure that there are objective people at the polls? And since you had to reprint the ballot papers many times, after the Spanish government has confiscated over 10 million of them, how do you ensure that they are legitimate?

Puigdemont: You have the registered census – people who are in the census will be able to vote, and people who are not in the census will not be able to vote.

People will not be able to vote twice over. There will be an electoral panel, which will be checking each voter individually. We should do things democratically via politics, not using the police or the courts.

Al Jazeera: With this cat-and-mouse game, in which police are shutting down polling stations, is there a secret plan for how to carry this out?

Puigdemont: We don’t know what the plans of the state are to stop the referendum. They’ve kept them under wraps.

So, we have no obligation to publicise how we are going to organise the referendum, the logistics – and there has been, as you have rightly said, a cat-and-mouse game.

Al Jazeera: Describe what an independent Catalonia would look like.

Puigdemont: We are committed to the great challenges of humanity: fighting terrorism, fighting climate change, fighting cyberattacks.

Al Jazeera: On the front lines of this quiet revolution are children, young people out in the streets, people who have gone to Catalan schools and are now occupying schools to keep them open as voting places. At the same time, there are thousands of police in the street and there is the potential for violence. If it gets ugly, what will you tell them?

Puigdemont: Firstly, it is inconceivable that a peaceful people that expresses itself peacefully could be repressed with violent means.

For the last six years, we have organised demonstrations which have brought together millions of people with zero incidents of violence. We can mobilise large masses. Now that we have 10 times more police, should we be scared of violence? It’s rather suspicious.

The question should be, “Is anyone interested in generating a climate of violence in Catalonia to attack the reputation of a movement which has earned its credibility the hard way by the way it expresses its opinion peacefully?”

There is no violence. So, if someone does have this temptation, they’ll be doing themselves no favour, and they’ll be doing European democracy no favour.

It’s a peaceful, civic, cross-cutting movement, with young people, old people, people from rural backgrounds, people from metropolitan backgrounds, people of different levels of education, people who are wealthy and people who are not wealthy.

We do not have to show that we are a peaceful people who know how to think properly – we have proved that.

Al Jazeera: If you succeed, you’ll have to decide what relationships the nation of Catalonia has. In the European Union, any country can withhold its support for a new country entering. Spain would almost certainly do that. Don’t you run the risk of doing a Catalonian Brexit in putting more borders between you and Europe rather than fewer?

Puigdemont: No, that is impossible. Firstly, we are already European citizens. There are 7.5 million Catalans who have European citizenship and we shall not lose it. To date, I have never requested recognition from any European state because I’ve never known the result of the referendum.

After the referendum, we shall move forward on that. We are pretty confident about the future of Catalonia within the European Union. It is a yes-yes situation.


Al Jazeera: How do you evaluate the reaction of the Spanish and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy?

Puigdemont: It is no surprise, but we are very disappointed. Maybe you have seen images of Spanish people in various points of Spain where police convoys are leaving for Catalonia saying, “Go and get them.”

Those images define or reflect the policy of the Rajoy government. They have no interest in making us feel comfortable and happy within Spain.

The Spanish government has almost acted like an arsonist. It has been putting wood on the fire. It has been acting totally irresponsibly.

And it is a lack of Spanish patriotism – a genuine Spanish patriot would want everything in its country to go smoothly, for everyone to feel happy within the state.

Al Jazeera: If you don’t succeed, you face some pretty serious consequences with the Spanish government. They have accused the organisers of this referendum of crimes, including sedition, which comes with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. Are you willing to face that?

Puigdemont: We accept full responsibility, but it would be very, very irresponsible for the response to a political aspiration to be a prison sentence.

I am no delinquent. I’m no criminal. I am not responsible for sedition. You don’t normally get coup d’etats with ballot papers instead of guns.

I accept my responsibilities, but let me tell you it would be a very severe mistake and they would have to live with the consequences. It would be a definite blow.