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‘Leave us alone!’ Independence vote puts Catalan mayors in a bind

Lluis Geni, AFP | A poster for Catalonia's independence referendum, in Barcelona, reading 'They won't stop us, vote!'

The mayors of Catalonia are stuck between a rock and a hard place ahead of the planned independence vote on October 1, with both Spanish prosecutors and Catalan separatists breathing down their necks.


The Catalan government has vowed to go ahead with the controversial vote despite Spain’s Constitutional Court ruling that it is illegal.

However, it needs the wealthy northeastern region's 948 mayors to provide facilities for polling stations – and not all mayors are willing to go against Spanish law in order to do so.

Nuria Marin, the mayor of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, Catalonia’s second-largest city, was among the first to say she would not grant access to municipal facilities for the vote.

“I refuse to take up this responsibility for a vote that was decided upon unilaterally,” she told FRANCE 24, adding that it was up to the separatists to organise the vote in their own premises.

A silent majority? The Catalans who say 'no' to independence
A silent majority? The Catalans who say 'no' to independence

Along with Marin, some 200 mayors – most of them from the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) – have declined to take part in the referendum. Their municipalities account for 40% of Catalonia’s 7.5 million inhabitants.

Underscoring the escalating tension in the run-up to the vote, the Socialist mayors have penned a joint statement emphasising their “right to freedom of expression, without any form of intimidation, discrimination or threat”.

Insult or arrest

To say that mayors are under pressure is an understatement. Catalonia’s pro-independence government has urged voters to “look [their mayors] square in the eye” and “ask whether they will finally let them vote”.

According to local daily La Vanguardia, some mayors have received insults and threatening messages from members of the public, and the walls of several town halls have been sprayed with graffiti.

As for the 700 or so mayors who have signed up for the referendum, they’re in an even tighter spot.

In a letter delivered to local authorities on Wednesday, Spain’s top prosecutor said any mayor who helped organise the vote would be summoned to court and face charges of civil disobedience, abuse of office and misuse of public funds.

If the mayors do not answer the summons, police should arrest all 700 of them, the letter added.

Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s pro-independence leader, promptly dubbed the move an "atrocity scarcely worthy of a democracy".

‘No time for this nonsense’

Furious at the prosecutor’s threat, Catalan municipal associations have called on mayors to protest in Barcelona on Saturday to show their "rejection of a Spanish judicial system that goes after the media, ballot papers, ballot boxes... and now mayors".

Several mayors have taken to social media saying they refuse to be cowed.

“I have a lot of work and no time for this nonsense. If they want to talk to me, they know where to find me,” Eudald Calvo, the mayor of tiny Argentera (136 inhabitants), posted on Twitter.

Like Calvo, the 15 other mayors belonging to the separatist, anti-capitalist CUP party have already warned they will not respond to the prosecutors’ summons.

'It is the Spanish justice system that has a problem'

Mayors from the more moderate PDeCAT, a conservative, pro-independence outfit, are just as defiant.

“When more than 700 mayors are pursued by the justice system, it’s not the mayors who have a problem, but the Spanish justice system itself,” said Miquel Buch, the mayor of Premià de Mar, a seaside town with a population of 28,000.

Ending a protracted suspense, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, who is backed by the pro-independence Podemos party, said Wednesday she would also “facilitate” the vote in the Catalan capital, home to 1.6 million people.

Passing on the hot potato

Opinion polls show that Catalans are divided on independence. But over 70 percent want a referendum to take place to settle the matter – provided it is held legally, in a process similar to the plebiscite held in Scotland in 2014.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government, however, has vowed to do everything in its power to stop the referendum.

Marin, the mayor of L’Hospitalet, says Catalonia’s mayors have become hostages to the bitter standoff between the central government in Madrid and the regional administration led by Puigdemont.

During festivities for the Catalan national holiday, on September 11, she walked up to Puigdemont and urged him to “leave the mayors alone!”

Rajoy and the Catalan leader now need to find a negotiated solution to the crisis, she said, “rather than passing the responsibility onto us mayors, who are in a very delicate situation”.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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