BARCELONA, Oct 1, (Agencies): Spanish riot police burst into polling stations across Catalonia on Sunday, confiscating ballot boxes and voting papers to try to halt a banned referendum on a split from Spain as Madrid asserted its authority over the rebel region. Police broke down doors to force entry into voting stations as defiant Catalans shouted ‘Out with the occupying forces!” and sang the anthem of the wealthy northeastern region. In one incident in Barcelona, police fired rubber bullets. Officers in riot gear forcibly removed people from a polling station in Girona and Catalan firefighters protected voters by standing between them and national police.
The referendum, declared illegal by Spain’s central government, has thrown the country into its worst constitutional crisis in decades and deepened a centuries-old rift between Madrid and Barcelona. Despite the police action, hundreds-strong queues of people formed in cities and villages throughout the region to cast their votes. At one Barcelona polling station, elderly people and those with children entered first.
The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain’s Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 constitution. A minority of around 40 percent of Catalans support independence, polls show, although a majority want to hold a referendum on the issue.
The region of 7.5 million people has an economy larger than that of Portugal. However much voting takes place, a “yes” result is likely, given that most of those who support independence are expected to cast ballots while most of those against it are not. Organisers had asked voters to turn out before dawn, hoping for large crowds to be the world’s first image of voting day. The Catalan government said voters could print out ballot papers at home and lodge them at any polling station not closed down by police.
Elsewhere, people were not able to access the ballot boxes. In a town in Girona province where Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was due to vote, Civil Guard police smashed glass panels to open the door and search for ballot boxes. Puigdemont voted in a different town in the province. He accused Spain of unjustified violence in stopping the vote and said it created a dreadful image of Spain. “The unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible violence of the Spanish state today has not only failed to stop Catalans’ desire to vote … but has helped to clarify all the doubts we had to resolve today,” he said.
The Catalan health service said 337 people had been injured as a result of police action. The government said 11 police officers were injured in clashes. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland, which voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in a 2014 referendum, said she was concerned by the images she was seeing from Catalonia. “Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes being witnessed and call on Spain to change course before someone is seriously hurt,” she said on Twitter.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel tweeted: “Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue.” Around 70 polling stations had been raided by police, Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said. The aim of the raids was to seize referendum material and not to target people wanting to vote, another senior government official said. Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamara said police had acted in a proportionate manner. “We have been made to do something we didn’t want to do,” said Enric Millo, the central government’s representative in Catalonia, at a news conference. One analyst said the scenes being played out across Catalonia on Sunday would make it harder for Madrid and Barcelona to find a way forward.
“I think it is going to make the clash more intense and make it more difficult to find a solution,” said Antonio Barroso of Teneo Intelligence. Puigdemont originally said that if the “yes” vote won, the Catalan government would declare independence within 48 hours, but regional leaders have since acknowledged Madrid’s crackdown has undermined the vote. Markets have reacted cautiously but calmly to the situation so far, though credit rating agency S&P said on Friday that protracted tensions in Catalonia could hurt Spain’s economic outlook.
The region accounts for about a fifth of the economy. Although Catalans are divided over independence, most want to vote on the matter in legal, binding plebiscite. The Spanish government’s representative in Catalonia placed the blame for the chaos on the regional leadership.
“Puigdemont and his team are solely responsible for all that has happened today and for all that can happen if they do not put an end to this farce,” Enric Millo told a news conference. “The sole objective of today’s operation has been to ensure that this illegal referendum does not take place and the Spanish and Catalan people can continue to live in peace and liberty as they have these past 40 years.” Pro-separatist lawmakers in Catalonia have pushed for an independence referendum since September 2015 when they won a narrow majority of 72 seats in the region’s parliament. Although Catalonia already has significant control over education, healthcare and welfare, the region says it pays more in taxes than it receives from Madrid. This has sparked resentment which has been further exacerbated by Spain’s economic doldrums and helped push the secessionist cause. The Catalan government says independence would leave the region richer and more able to protect its language and culture The referendum law foresees a declaration of independence within 48 hours of a ‘Yes’ vote. But it remains unclear what the regional government will actually do so, although whatever happens, the outcome will not be recognised by Madrid.