Catalonia’s referendum on independence was marred by dramatic scenes of violence on Sunday as Spanish police and Civil Guards burst into polling stations to try to prevent the vote taking place.
Initial reports said 38 would-be voters were injured in the ensuing clashes, but by early evening figures were far higher. The Catalan government health department reported over 840 people had needed various degrees of medical attention, whilst Spain’s Ministry of the Interior said 12 police officers had been hurt.
The referendum had previously been declared illegal by the Spanish courts and is strongly opposed by the Madrid government, who repeatedly promised that it would not take place. And to judge by Spanish police tactics when they swooped at polling stations it was clear the authorities meant business.
Mobile phone footage posted online from those present at polling stations showed cases of Spanish police and Civil Guards smashing through school doors, forcibly ejecting referendum organisers and using truncheons on groups of voters holding up their hands. In one station they half-threw would-be voters down a stairwell and dragged out some protesters by their hair and there were also reports of rubber bullets being fired in one standoff in Barcelona.
Spain’s Ministry of the Interior has posted videos of hooded figures throwing objects at police and another of Civil Guards retreating under a hail of stones from protestors. They also condemned pro-referendum supporters for, in some cases, going to vote with their children alongside them whilst Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido insisted the police and Guardia Civil response was “proportional and professional”.
The day started calmly when voters assembled in their hundreds in villages and towns across Catalonia well before the 9am opening time.
Local police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, stood by without intervening – an attitude for which they were widely criticised outside Catalonia.
But the 10,000 police specially drafted into Catalonia from other parts of Spain to handle the referendum clearly had a very different idea, as events at a school in Saint Julia de Ramis, the hometown of Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, were to show.
An audible gasp went up amongst the crowds watching the scenes on a bar TV near a polling station in nearby Girona, one of Catalonia’s pro-independence strongholds, as Civil Guards used a crowbar to smash their way through the school’s glass doors and began a fruitless search for ballot boxes. Mr. Puigdemont opted to vote in another, nearby village, Cornella de Terri, whilst his deputy PM, Oriol Junqueras, used an escort of firemen to ensure he could vote unhindered.
"We want to vote, but it’s going to be tough," one voter in Girona, who would only give his first name, Jordi. "We’re not doing anything wrong, we’re just putting a vote in a ballot box."
But Spanish Premier Mariano Rajoy, making a speech after polling stations had closed, was adamant that “today there has been no referendum on secession, just a pretext of one.”
“They [the organisers] knew this was illegal, but they went ahead anyway. The state has reacted calmly and serenely.”
In some cities like Girona, the tension varied wildly from hour to hour with polling proceeding normally in some locations. Others experienced attempts at closure by the police, but then re-opened when they had gone. But even after voting ending, many pro-separatists remained in the schools to ensure ballot boxes were not seized before the count.
“I’ve never, in all the elections I’ve been through, felt as emotional about voting, not even when I ran for mayor in my own village,” said Luis Simon, a local sports journalist who voted towards midday without incident.
It was thought by some pro-referendum organisers that with 2,315 different polling stations to handle, it was nearly impossible for the Spanish police to target them all. Spanish interior ministry figures later said 92 polling stations had been closed although the Catalan government claimed it was nearly triple that figure.
To avoid any risk of trouble, a first division Barcelona football fixture against Las Palmas yesterday was played behind closed doors, after Las Palmas revealed they would have a specially sewn-on Spanish flag in their kit in support of Spanish unity. But at the voting stations, the tension showed no sign of abating.
“It’s an absolute disaster that we’ve reached this situation,” one man in his 50s who did not want to be named. As he spoke, protesters outside a Girona polling station chanted "Els Segadors", the Catalan national anthem, in front of police lines.
“We should have avoided this situation with dialogue and instead we’ve reached a point where there are no winners and no losers. It’s deeply disappointing.”
How soon a result could be produced from the referendum remained unclear last (Sunday) night, although Catalonia’s government quickly claimed three million votes of the electoral register of 5.3 million had been cast.
Some nationalist politicians have declared that they will make a unilateral declaration of independence early this week if the result is, as expected, in favour of breaking away of Spain whilst in Madrid, Mr Rajoy has promised an all-party meeting to discuss Catalonia. Meanwhile, Spain’s most serious constitutional crisis in decades shows no sign of abating any time soon.
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