BARCELONA – Spanish national police launched a widespread crackdown on Catalonia’s disputed independence referendum Sunday, raiding polling stations and firing rubber bullets in a concerted attempt to deny the vote legitimacy.
In scenes that reverberated around Spain, riot police smashed their way into some polling locations and beat back voters with batons as they attempted to take part in the referendum. Hundreds of injuries were reported.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont condemned “indiscriminate aggression” against peaceful voters. Spanish authorities appeared determined to prevent as many people as possible from casting ballots in the referendum, which Spain’s top court has declared illegal. Catalan spokesman Jordi Turull called the actions of the Spanish state “the shame of Europe.”
In the early evening as the close of voting approached, the mood on the streets of the regional capital, Barcelona, was tense.
The Spanish Interior Ministry said authorities had succeeded in closing down 92 of about 2,300 polling stations. It was unclear whether and how police would attempt to stop the vote being counted after polls close at 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET).
— Catalonia’s regional government condemned the police crackdown and compared it to the postwar Franco dictatorship.
— The Health Ministry of Catalonia said 465 people required medical assistance, and that two of them were in a serious condition.
— The Interior Ministry said 13 national police officers had been injured in scuffles.
— FC Barcelona said a match against a rival that supports the Madrid government would be played behind closed doors.
— The Spanish Deputy Prime Minister blamed the violence on the determination of the Catalan authorities to go ahead with the vote, despite it being declared illegal.
— Pictures showed people with injuries sustained in clashes with police.
Spain: referendum is ‘blatantly illegal’
The national government is implacably opposed to any breakaway moves by the northeastern region. In a press conference in Madrid Sunday, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría blamed the violence on the “crazy rush” of the Catalan regional government to hold the “unconstitutional” vote.
“The referendum couldn’t be held, and it’s not been held. To carry on with this farce makes no sense, it doesn’t lead anywhere,” she said.
Defending the national police actions, Saenz de Santamaria said their objective had been to seize material associated with the referendum and not to target Catalans.
She called on the Catalan government to halt its “irresponsible behavior” and call off the vote. “Despite the blatant illegality of this, they wanted to continue, using children and old people recklessly.”
Catalan government condemns ‘state violence’
In Girona, where Puigdemont was due to vote, police smashed their way into a polling station by breaking a glass window. Puigdemont cast his ballot in a nearby village.
Catalan authorities said Education Minister Clara Ponsati i Obiols was forcibly removed from her polling station.
Regional government spokesperson Jordi Turull told a press conference in Barcelona two hours after polling began that despite the Spanish government’s efforts, 73% of the polling stations were open. He replied to the Spanish government’s claim that police force was only used to confiscate electoral material and not against people, quoting the figure of 465 injured and adding that “rubber bullets and teargas is not how you seize material.”
He accused Madrid of being responsible for “a state violence unknown to Spain since the age of Franco,” referring to the former military dictator Francisco Franco who ruled the country with an iron fist for 36 years until 1975.
Turull added that “the violation of fundamental rights in Catalonia is not an internal problem of Spain, it is an internal problem of the EU, and we Catalans are citizens of the EU.”
When asked by a reporter if it was all worth it, he replied, “Defending democracy will be always worth it.” Turull encouraged those who haven’t yet voted to do so, saying that “millions” have voted despite the closure of 319 polling stations by the police.
In a tweet, the Catalan administration called on the Spanish government representative in the province to resign.
Voters defy Madrid to cast ballots
Throughout the region, there was a mood of excitement mixed with tension as people cast their votes. Elderly people were clapped as emerged from polling stations, while others hugged friends.
“This moment means a lot to me,” Joana Rauet, 89, told CNN after voting at the Josep Maria Jojol school in Barcelona on Sunday. “I feel satisfied that I was able to take part. I’m feeling very happy,” she said.
People told CNN they had been told to stay in case the police arrived to shut the voting station down.
“If the police show up, I will stand my ground. I will peacefully resist,” Xan Fernando, 20, a student told CNN.
Supporters of the referendum were unsure whether police would attempt to prevent ballot papers from being counted.
At the largest polling station in Barcelona, at the Institut Escola del Treball school, crowds gathered in the afternoon in an effort to prevent police from seizing the ballot papers.
A group of fire fighters arrived in uniform, saying they would help protect the votes. Miguel Ruiz, 44, said: “We’re here to show support, to help if necessary and also to put ourselves in front if it comes to that.”
Results are expected around 10 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET), two hours after the close of polls.
Why is the referendum taking place?
Catalonia, a wealthy region in Spain’s northeast, has its own regional government — or Generalitat — which already has considerable powers over healthcare, education and tax collection.
But Catalan nationalists want more, arguing that they are a separate nation with their own history, culture and language and that they should have increased fiscal independence.
The region pays tax to Madrid, and pro-independence politicians argue that complex mechanisms for redistributing tax revenue are unfair on wealthier areas and result in Catalonian revenues subsidizing other parts of Spain.
Others, including Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, insist that the country cannot be divided.
Catalonia’s campaign to break away has been gaining momentum since 2010, when Spain’s economy plunged during the financial crisis. Catalonia held a symbolic poll in 2014, in which 80% of voters backed complete secession — but only 32% of the electorate turned out.
In the runup to the vote, national authorities seized ballot papers, voter lists and campaign material, as well as sending thousands of extra national police to the region. High-ranking Catalan officials involved in organizing the referendum were arrested.
In the past few days, authorities blocked the use of a voting location app and seized vote-counting software.
The 5.3 million voters on the electoral roll were being asked to respond yes or no to the question: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state, in the form of a Republic?”
The Catalan government has not yet made clear how it will respond in the event of a “yes” vote.