Catalonia’s Independence Vote Descends Into Chaos and Clashes


(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

 

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The Spanish police blocked the entrance of a Barcelona school that was to be used as a polling station in the Catalan independence referendum on Sunday. CreditEmilio Morenatti/Associated Press

BARCELONA, Spain — Catalonia’s defiant attempt to stage an independence referendum descended into chaos on Sunday, with hundreds injured in clashes with police in one of the most serious tests of Spain’s democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s.

National police officers in riot gear deployed in thick phalanxes as they fanned out across Catalonia, the restive northeastern region of Spain, to shut down polling stations and seize ballot boxes.

Over the course of the day, the referendum took on an almost surreal cast. The voting went ahead in many towns and cities, with men and women, young and old, singing and chanting as they lined up for hours to cast ballots, even as confrontations with the police turned violent elsewhere.

The police, sent by the central government in Madrid from other parts of Spain, used rubber bullets and truncheons in some places. The clashes quickly spoiled what had been a festive, if expectant, atmosphere among voters, many of whom had camped inside polling stations to ensure that they would remain open.

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The Spanish police fired rubber bullets at Catalans trying to vote in Barcelona on Sunday.CreditEmilio Morenatti/Associated Press

Proponents of the referendum immediately pointed to the heavy use of police force as a blight not only on the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, but also on Spain’s still relatively young democracy.

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“The image of the Spanish state has reached levels of shame that will stay with them forever,” the leader of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, told a crowd in the town of Sant Julià de Ramis, the scene of clashes.

The Catalan vote has been watched with rising trepidation — and no sign of support — by a European Union wary of stoking forces of fragmentation already tugging at the bloc and many member states, where populist and nationalist parties have surged in recent elections.

Nationalism in Spain, a country with a long and painful 20th century history that included civil war and fascism, has been all but dormant since the coming of democracy after the death of the dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975. There are already signs that Catalonia’s threat to fracture the country is changing that.

Because of the tensions Sunday, F.C. Barcelona, the soccer club, played a match behind closed doors in its Camp Nou stadium, where the opposing Spanish team came with special uniforms emblazoned with the Spanish flag — something unusual here.

Yet none of the tensions or lack of support has dimmed aspirations for independence in Catalonia, a prosperous region with a distinct language, history and culture.

Yearnings for a separate state have ebbed and flowed for generations, but rose in recent years as Catalans complained that Madrid was unfairly siphoning off their wealth and denying them the right to choose their own political destiny.

The Madrid government, with the backing of Spanish courts, declared the referendum unconstitutional and ordered the vote suspended. But that did not stop Catalans from lining up before sunrise on Sunday, massing on rain-slicked streets in towns and cities across the region.

The turnout was an extraordinary show of determination in the face of a steady drumbeat of threats from Madrid. Though it was far from clear that Sunday’s vote would yield a reliable result, both sides quickly claimed victory — and victimization.

Spanish authorities accused the separatist government of irresponsibly encouraging voters to violate Spanish law and declared that the referendum had been successfully disrupted.

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Pro-referendum supporters blocked a gate to a polling station in Barcelona as members of the Spanish police arrived to control the area. CreditChris Mcgrath/Getty Images

The Catalan authorities maintained that balloting had proceeded in almost three-quarters of polling stations and seemed determined to use the vote as further evidence of the legitimacy of their claim for a separate nation.

Mr. Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, accused the Spanish government of using “unjustified and irresponsible” means to stop Catalonia’s voters, “with truncheons against ballot boxes.”

“Today, the Spanish state has lost a lot more than it had already lost, and Catalan citizens have won a lot more than they had won until now,” he said.

Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Spain’s deputy prime minister, later praised the Spanish police for blocking a vote that “couldn’t be celebrated and wasn’t celebrated.”

She told a news conference that the Catalan government had acted “with absolute irresponsibility, which had to be overcome by the professionalism of the security forces.”

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Some Catalans managed to cast ballots at a school in Barcelona on Sunday. CreditJon Nazca/Reuters

More than 460 people were injured in the crackdown and scuffling that ensued, according to Catalan officials, while a dozen Spanish police officers were wounded, according to Spain’s interior ministry.

Ada Colau, the left-wing mayor of Barcelona, called on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to resign over his “cowardly” and unjustified police intervention.

“Today, we’re not talking about independence or not, but about a breakup between Mariano Rajoy and his government with Catalonia,” she told reporters.

Overnight, Catalans had used tractors to block police access to some rural municipalities so that the vote could go on. In other places, residents removed the doors of polling stations to ensure that the police could not bolt them on Sunday.

As Sunday approached, the Madrid government tried everything it could to thwart the referendum: disabling the internet, confiscating ballots, detaining some officials and threatening scores more with prosecution.

The Referendum

What’s at stake? Catch up on the election here.

  • Catalonia is voting on independence Sunday despite opposition from Madrid. What are the origins of the secessionist movement, and who is trying to block the vote?

The vote took place anyway in an atmosphere of cat and mouse and in improvised conditions, with a disputed census used as the voting list.

Catalan officials instead relied on privately printed ballots, and changed the voting rules an hour before polls were scheduled to open, to allow voters to cast a ballot at any poll station, without using an envelope and whether registered there or not.

Enric Millo, the Spanish government’s representative in Catalonia, said the last-minute change turned what was already an illegal referendum into “a joke.”

Mr. Millo deplored the fact the national police were forced to take over from Catalan police officers who failed to stop the voting. “We’re being forced to do what we didn’t want to do,” he said.

Some videos posted on social media even showed arguments and some tussling between Spanish national police and the Catalan police.

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Protesters made a fascist salute during a demonstration in Barcelona by far-right groups against the Catalan referendum on Sunday. CreditPau Barrena/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Catalan police also intervened in Barcelona’s main downtown square to prevent clashes between separatists and a small group of far-right partisans of Spain.

A few outsiders had traveled to Catalonia from other countries to act as observers, saying they wanted to make sure that the police did not use force against voters.

Dimitrij Rupel, a former foreign minister of Slovenia, led a delegation of 35 foreign officials invited by the Catalan government. After watching the police intervene, he said that the “police have nothing to do with the democratic process — they shouldn’t be here.”

Others compared the situation in Catalonia with that in their own independence-minded regions, precisely what has concerned European Union officials and neighboring governments.

“Every person in the world should have the right to decide their present and future, which of course means the right to vote,” said Andrea Favaro, an Italian lawyer, who waited inside a polling station early on Sunday. Mr. Favoro is from the Veneto region that has held a nonbinding ballot on independence from Italy.

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Catalan police officers walked by people camping out at the entrance to a Barcelona elementary school, one of the designated polling stations for the independence referendum. CreditJon Nazca/Reuters

Recent opinion polls suggest that slightly less than half of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people support separation from Spain, but separatist parties won a majority in the region’s Parliament in 2015 and their influence has grown.

Many say Catalonia would face a perilous and uncertain future outside Spain, the market for most of the region’s goods, and would not be assured of being readmitted to the European Union.

Others complained that the thrust for independence had deepened divisions within the region, whose vibrant economy has attracted families from inside and outside Spain.

Olga Noheda, a doctor in Centelles, said one of her patients, an older man, began crying in her examination room, and explained that his granddaughter had begun expressing dislike for Spaniards.

“He was very sad, because he didn’t understand where it all came from,” she said. “He migrated to Catalonia many years ago, from Seville, and he was wondering if his granddaughter was aware that he was a Spaniard.”

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A tractor was used to block police access to a polling station in Sant Julià de Ramis. CreditDavid Ramos/Getty Images

In the days leading up to the vote, school principals had received letters threatening them with sedition charges, which carry a 15-year prison term, if they willingly allowed their buildings to be used as polling stations.

In one city, the local newspaper editor discovered he faced a criminal complaint after he printed a list of schools that would be holding votes.

Still, in some Catalan cities like Berga, people lined up to vote early, aware that the Spanish police could intervene later in the day. A car toured the city with a megaphone, calling on citizens to go to their polling stations “to defend the ballot boxes and democracy.”

In the southern port city of Tarragona, Emilia Roldan Cano, a 58-year-old sales assistant, was the first — and last — person to vote before police confiscated the ballot box at her polling station. She said she was pleased to have been among the many people who cast a ballot.

“I am Catalan and I love Catalonia,” said Ms. Roldan Cano, whose parents moved to the region from Andalusia in the 1950s, looking for work. “And now I like it more, seeing all that I see.”

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