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.
The mood on the streets of the regional capital, Barcelona, was tense as polls closed Sunday night. Crowds gathered in Plaza Catalonia to await results.
Shortly after voting ended, Spain’s Prime Minister said there was no referendum and that most Catalans were fooled into participating in an illegal vote.
“At this point, I can tell you very clearly: Today a self-determination referendum in Catalonia didn’t happen. We proved today that our state reacts with all its legal means against every provocation,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in a televised speech.
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.”
— Spain’s Prime Minister says rule of law prevailed in blocking “illegal referendum.”
— Catalonia’s regional government condemned the police crackdown and compared it to the postwar Franco dictatorship.
— The Health Ministry of Catalonia said 844 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. 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 in a news conference in Madrid on Sunday.
The Spanish Interior Ministry said authorities closed 92 of about 2,300 polling stations.
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.”
Spain’s Prime Minister echoed those sentiments Sunday night, blaming Catalan secessionists with indoctrinating children and “harassing judges and journalists.”
“The [Spanish] government always maintained that the referendum would not take place,” he said. “[The Catalan government] knew the referendum was illegal and impossible, but they decided to carry forward with their attack to the democratic state.”
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.
Two hours after polling began, regional government spokesperson Jordi Turull said 73% of polling stations were open despite the Spanish government’s efforts. He challenged the Spanish government’s claim that police force was only used to confiscate electoral material, citing the number of people injured and adding that “rubber bullets and tear gas 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.
“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,” Turull said.
When asked by a reporter if the unrest was 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, a combination of excitement and tension prevailed as people cast their votes. Elderly people were applauded as they 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 were 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 health care, 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 the Prime Minister, insist that the country cannot be divided. On Sunday night, Rajoy blamed the referendum for dividing the country and creating violence.
“The referendum that wanted to liquidate our constitution and separate a part of our country with no regards to the opinion of the whole nation did not came into existence,” he said.
“We showed that our democratic state has the means to protect itself from such a serious attack as the one this illegal referendum represented.”
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.