A referendum is off, but a vote is still on. Result: confusion. Catalonia’s referendum on independence, planned for November 9th, will not now happen. Or might it, after all? On October 14th the Catalan president, Artur Mas, admitted that, with the referendum officially suspended by Spain’s constitutional court, it would have to be scrapped. But, he added, some other sort of public consultation will still happen on that day—and it will involve ballot boxes.
Mr Mas refused to provide details. He claimed that he did not want to give the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, too many clues about his plans. Given the legal obstacles, even Mr Mas may not be sure how to proceed. Catalonia’s more radical and leftist separatists were angered by his decision to obey the court while calling for a watered-down, pseudo-referendum. They want an early election in this rich and populous region of north-east Spain. Mr Mas is trying to deflect the separatists’ claims of cowardice by ramping up the war of words. “The Spanish state is the adversary,” he declared.
A three-way game of brinkmanship between Mr Rajoy, Mr Mas and the separatist Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party that props up his government in Catalonia is creating uncertainty. Mr Rajoy has used the constitutional court to block the referendum, though it may take another five months to rule definitively that it is illegal. He offers little else beyond a readiness to talk. ERC proposes civil disobedience, an illegal referendum and, eventually, a unilateral declaration of independence. If it cannot have these, it wants an election that it is likely to win. If one is not called, it threatens to withdraw support from the government led by Mr Mas’s Convergence and Union (CiU), making it impossible to pass a budget for 2015.
Mr Mas is on a tightrope. His mock referendum buys time and is a clever bid to win temporary backing from the well-organised civil activists who are the motor behind separatism. After November 9th, he says, there should be a single-issue plebiscitary election, in which separatists stand together to allow Catalan voters formally to express their views on independence. But such an election would split CiU, which unites Mr Mas’s mostly separatist Catalan Democratic Convergence (CDC) party with the largely non-separatist Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC). The UDC has already suggested that it may form a new centrist coalition.