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The power of smoke

"Smoke is uncanny, able to slip through the walls of a reluctant State"

During the parliamentary campaign of 2012, president Mas resisted using the word independence, preferring the euphemism our own state and saying things like "independence doesn't exist, we are all interdependent". This half-truth had the advantage of attracting those who wanted to end Catalonia's subordination to Spanish law without scaring off the defenders of the status quo. But that wasn't all. It also awoke the interest of those who had never yet dared to think that having their "own state" was even possible.

The impatient cried "Smoke screen! It's just a smoke screen!" without realizing that sometimes smoke can take shape.

President Mas also avoided the word referendum, preferring consulta. The understanding was that the Spanish Constitution doesn't allow binding referendums, particularly about Constitutional issues and so by calling it a consulta, this limitation might be bypassed. The President insisted time and again however, that although a consulta was not legally binding, it would be politically binding, as an expression of the will of the Catalan people.

At the same time, the right of self-determination –a principle enshrined in the United Nations Charter of Human rights, though with somewhat shaky support from established countries– disappeared from the lexicon, only to be replaced by the right to decide a vague concept that is at the same time a basic strand of the DNA of democratic countries. You might be able to argue whether Catalonia has a right to self-determination, but it's right to decide is non-negotiable. Smoke is uncanny, able to slip through the walls of a reluctant State.

The Spanish State worried that this political significance made the consulta indistinguishable from a referendum (binding or not). Because it is adamant that the Catalan people not have the right to voice its will on its own political future, Spain's Constitutional Court suspended Catalonia's Law of Referendum-like Consultations (there's a literal translation for you), which formed the legal basis for Mas' consulta.

Now the president, with the stated aim of allowing the Catalan people to voice their opinion, has retreated from having a consulta in accordance with the Catalan Consultations Law, and instead is promoting, on the same day and with the same question, a participatory process. A vote is participatory, but participation is not always a vote. The people, and the political parties that have given him support, are understandably confused.

Even if it's true that it's better to vote in a participatory process than not at all, as the President sustains, it's also important that a careful parsing of words stay consistent in order to maintain credibility. When he shifted last Monday and began saying that the consulta was not the definitive step, and never had been, and that instead a plebiscite was the definitive way to gauge Catalan public opinion, the feeling was that the goal posts had been moved. So much smoke, some of it got in people's eyes.

Meanwhile, not all is lost. El País reports that the central government hasn't yet figured out how to respond to the new formulation of the consulta. It's pretty hard to have a fistfight with smoke. The Catalan Government has contacted local municipalities about setting up polling stations, gathering tens of thousands of volunteers and moving ahead with a plan which at first glance looks very ephemeral, but just might end up with people placing very real ballots in very real ballot boxes in every town in the country.

Still, the latest, final hair splitting may go too far. Muriel Casals and Carles Boix and others have begun to talk about the difference between a Declaration of Independence and a Proclamation of Independence. Boix explains that a "solemn declaration" would come after a Yes result in a referendum ( consulta? participatory process? plebiscite?), and would be followed by negotiations with the Spanish State not to last more than a year, creation of state structures like a tax agency and border control, followed by a "Proclamation of Independence" which would ostensibly mark the beginning of the Catalan Republic.

However, the existence of a proclamation strips all meaning from the declaration just like the existence of a 'definitive' plebiscite does the same with the referendum-cum-consulta-cum-participatory-process. Nevertheless, no matter how much of a smoke screen goes up, no matter what the declaration of independence is called, the Spanish State is unlikely to respond well. It'd be a good idea that those state structures be solidly built beforehand.