Catalan leader says 'everything ready' for contested vote

BARCELONA: Catalonia's president said Sunday his pro–separatist government has "everything ready" for the Oct 1 independence referendum that has been outlawed by the Spain's central government and courts.

He spoke on the eve of Catalonia's national day, for which pro–independence protesters will hit the streets of Barcelona in a show of force in response to Madrid's attempts to stop the referendum from going ahead.

"The (regional) government has now prepared everything so that on Sunday Oct 1, Catalans can vote, as they have always done, in total normalcy," Catalonia's President Carles Puigdemont said without giving further details during a speech broadcast on Catalan television.

To stage the vote the Catalan government has had to discreetly create ballots, form electoral lists, establish where polling stations will be and set up an electoral authority to govern the vote to skirt the central government's attempts to stop the referendum.

Spain's Constitutional Court suspended a referendum law that was fast–tracked through Catalonia's regional parliament on Wednesday.

State prosecutors have also targeted Puigdemont and other members of his government with lawsuits for possible disobedience, abuse of power and embezzlement charges and have urged public workers and firms not to participate in the referendum.

"It is a legal referendum, according to the laws which were approved by the Catalan parliament", Puigdemont said.

'Ballot boxes unite'

If the "Yes" side wins the referendum, Catalonia's regional government has vowed to declare independence for Catalonia, a wealthy region of 7.5 million residents in northeastern Spain which is roughly the same size of Belgium, within 48 hours.

The referendum call has ramped up tensions between Catalonia and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government in Madrid, which has vowed to do everything necessary to block the plebiscite which vote.

He argues that the Spanish constitution does not allow regions to unilaterally decide on sovereignty — a position backed by the Constitutional court.

"Everyone must ask themselves: what will you do on October 1? Help the vote or help to stop it?," Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull said Sunday.

Catalan society is deeply divided over independence.

In a survey by the Catalan Centre of Opinion Studies in July, 41.1% backed independence while 49.9 percent rejected it. Some 70% wanted a referendum, however, to settle the question once and for all.

Like the referendum held in Britain last year on the country's membership in the European Union, the issue in Catalonia pits rural areas — which are more pro–independence — against large urban centres like Barcelona that are more in favour of remaining within Spain.

Puigdemont rejected the argument that his government's separatist push was splitting Catalan society.

"Ballot boxes unite, they do not divide," Puigdemont said. "What divides, what degrades democracy, is not letting people vote. — AFP