Catalonia referendum: Fears in Barcelona as biggest annual festival comes amid independence unrest

The annual Merce festival is under way in Barcelona, but tensions are high in the lead-up to the disputed Catalan independence vote, due to be held on 1 October

Jennifer Waddell
Friday 22 September 2017 19:57 BST
The current political controversy has contributed to an atmosphere of unease
The current political controversy has contributed to an atmosphere of unease (AP)

The banging of pots and pans is heard at 10pm every evening in Barcelona these days, a low-tech call to solidarity and protest. The atmosphere in Barcelona is a mix of anticipation and tension as the annual Merce festival coincides with the lead-up to the disputed Catalan independence vote which will be held on 1 October.

The cacerolada started on 20 September, the day the central government in Madrid sent National police to arrest 14 Catalan government officials involved in organising the vote. Millions of printed ballots have been seized from printers, and two cruise ships have been moored in Barcelona’s harbour to house hundreds of national police reinforcements. The current political controversy has combined with the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the city on 17 August has created an atmosphere of unease for some habitants.

The Merce is a huge festival held outdoors at 24 venues around the city. The event includes free concerts, street theatre, human castles and fireworks, and is expected to bring an estimated 600,000 people into the streets. Monday is a bank holiday in Barcelona. Some habitants have expressed concern that the central government will take advantage of the crowds at the Merce to provoke an altercation that would legitimise the intervention of the police.

Barcelona resident Josephine Watson worries about the risk of an altercation with police. “Sending vans of police from all over the country could be taken as provocation,” she says. “There should be more important things for the police to be doing.”

She explained that, so far, the manifestations she has attended have been peaceful and that she has seen people of all ages and from all sectors of society. “There were people who were old enough to have protested Franco, and children who were attending their first protest.”

Today, the central government has suggested that it may consider any protest, even peaceful, as an act of‘sedition. “The central government’s response is out of proportion. It’s like we’ve gone back in time 40 years.” Watson said.

A Catalan pro-independence flag hangs inside the rectory of the University of Barcelona during a protest on Friday (David Ramos/Getty)
A Catalan pro-independence flag hangs inside the rectory of the University of Barcelona during a protest on Friday (David Ramos/Getty) (Getty)

Monica Llaví agrees. “The [national] government wants to provoke people with the Guardia Civil and the military. I’m sure the protesters will act peacefully.” Llaví says she plans to attend rallies this weekend with her husband and children.

The Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, denounced the actions by the Spanish state as “repressive and intolerant”. He has reiterated that the vote will go ahead. On Thursday Puigdemont tweeted a link to a list of polling stations. “We will assert the legitimacy of the decision of the Catalan people. We won’t back down. We will defend the right of the Catalans to decide their future, because it’s the duty we received from them and from the Parliament.”

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has taken a hard line on the referendum, demanding that Catalan officials “stop this escalation of radicalism and disobedience once and for all.” Protests are planned throughout Catalonia on Sunday.

Support for the referendum and condemnation of the actions of the Spanish government has come from a wide range of individuals and groups. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, encouraged negotiation rather than escalation of the conflict. “That has got to be preferable to the sight of police officers seizing ballot papers and entering newspaper offices,” she said.

Although the constitutional court of Spain has ruled that any referendum on independence is illegal, the Catalan parliament plans to declare independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote. Despite the peculiar atmosphere in the city and the uncertainty about what could happen in the run-up to the vote, the habitants of Barcelona are preparing for a three-day weekend of fiesta and protest.

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