How to Stage an Illegal Referendum

  • Catalan separatists plotting independence vote for past year
  • Spanish police raided local business seeking ballot materials

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At secret locations across the rebel region of Catalonia, activists have hidden the ballot boxes they plan to deploy in an illegal referendum on independence next month.

Those stashes are just one element in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse as the separatists try to deliver a vote on Oct. 1 in defiance of the Spanish authorities. Police have already raided local businesses as they hunt for the ballot papers and officials suspected of helping organize the polling have been hauled in for questioning by prosecutors.

The separatist leaders are pressing on all the same.

“It’s impossible for the Civil Guard to find 6,400 ballot boxes across almost 1,000 towns in Catalonia,” Jordi Sanchez, head of the Catalan National Assembly, a pro-independence civic group, says in an interview. “What are they going to do, search individual homes? Where are the search warrants?”

Read more, Catalan History of Grievance Leaves a Divided Spain: QuickTake

Sanchez, 52, is part of the inner circle of the separatist movement, a discreet group including Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, his deputy Oriol Junqueras and the speaker of the regional parliament Carme Forcadell. They’ve been plotting this operation since pro-independence parties secured a slim majority in Catalan elections in 2015. And they’ve been working toward it all their adult lives.

While actual independence remains a distant prospect, another prize is within reach: with a referendum victory in the bag, they can raise the flag of a Catalan republic over the government headquarters, marking a watershed moment of defiance for their movement. Spanish police would most likely tear it down straight away, but that photograph alone would be a propaganda coup for the separatists and tip Spain into a constitutional crisis.

Activists on the Ground

The inner circle brings together the regional legislature and the executive with the grass-roots activists. When the Catalan Parliament approved its referendum law using an improvised emergency procedure on Sept. 6, the group had rehearsed with speaker Forcadell to ensure the debate was conducted as smoothly as possible.

To bolster security, Sanchez said most of those involved have been shielded from information outside their part of the operation. One person will have details of a consignment of ballot boxes, another will know how the voting slips will be produced, while others are focused on the electoral lists.

The Assembly is funded by its 40,000 members and has local branches in almost 500 municipal branches, giving it an unparalleled capability to mobilize activists on the ground, whether in a lightning response to police actions or mass demonstrations like Catalan National Day.

On referendum day, Assembly members plan to vote as soon as the improvised polling stations open on Oct. 1, so that they can then take over manning the ballot if the designated officiators fail to show up. Most of the voting is likely to take place in schools controlled by the regional government.

Protected Messaging

One local activist, who asked not to be named because of the threat of prosecution, said he uses the Telegram Messenger app to coordinate with his team on the ground instead of Facebook Inc.’s Whatsapp, which is practically universal in Spain. He’s uncomfortable with Whatsapp’s track record for handing over messages to governments. He declined to say whether he’s seen the ballot boxes.

The final tool the separatists have at their disposal is their propaganda operation. Both sides know that an image of Spanish police seizing ballot boxes or arresting the region’s elected officials is likely to inflame the movement’s supporters.

To that effect, the regional government appointed a new head of education this month. Clara Ponsati is a 60-year-old economics professor from St. Andrews University in Scotland who’s also taught at Princeton, Georgetown and the University of Minnesota. It’ll be up to her to sign the order to open up the schools for the ballot.

The message to Rajoy is clear: if he wants to arrest the internationally renowned academic for letting people vote, that’s a deal the separatists will take.

Police Threat

Those on the front line are taking precautions all the same.

Video producer Ramon Pique, whose brother Joan is a spokesman for the regional government, traveled to Berga, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, to film a campaign ad for the pro-independence camp, an area where widespread support for the campaign meant he was unlikely to run into trouble from locals.

He became agitated when approached by a Bloomberg reporter, explaining that he’d seen a buildup of activity in the nearby barracks of the Guardia Civil. Two days later, prosecutors said that any activity relating to the referendum was illegal -- meaning Pique’s equipment could have been seized by police. The activist, a 60-something businessman, has transferred all his assets into his wife’s name, to shield them from any possible legal action.

Spanish officials have seized at least 1.4 million campaign posters from the regional government and separatist groups this month. On Sept. 9, the Civil Guard raided a local newspaper in western Catalonia and seized material from a printworks in Tarragona as they searched for the ballot papers. The Guardia Civil also shut down the regional government’s referendum web site on Sept. 15, though it was live again within minutes from backup servers located outside Spain.

The separatists have been collecting material for the referendum for a year, Sanchez said. They’ve checked it all and made sure it’s ready to be deployed. Now they just need to keep it out of the hands of the Spanish police for another 11 days.

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