Spanish Police Beat Catalan Voters, Deepening the Divide That Threatens Spain

Catalonia's independence referendum concluded Sunday amid deep uncertainty about everything from the integrity of the vote to the meaning of the result.

Volunteers, acting as polling station officials, start to count ballots during a blackout after the polling station closed at the La Llacuna school in the Poble Nou neighborhood in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Spanish riot police, acting on orders from the Spanish government to stop the voting, which Spain's Constitutional Court had declared illegal, smashed their way into Catalan polling stations Sunday to try to halt a disputed referendum on independence.(AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Volunteer poll workers officials counted ballots during a blackout at the La Llacuna school in the Poble Nou neighborhood in Barcelona on Sunday. Photo: Manu Fernandez/AP

Catalonia’s independence referendum concluded Sunday night here in Barcelona, the Catalan capital, amid deep uncertainty about everything from the integrity of the vote to the meaning of the result.

Despite claims from Spain’s central government in Madrid that the referendum was illegal and the result would not be recognized, a spokesperson for the Catalan regional government announced early Monday morning that 2,262,424 valid votes had been cast and counted — 90 percent of them in favor of independence from Spain.

Immediately after the announcement, Spanish reporters pressed the spokesperson, Jordi Turull, to say what it meant for the referendum that the 2,262,424 voters comprised just 42 percent of Catalonia’s 5,343,358 eligible voters. Turull argued that ballot boxes seized by the Spanish police in an effort to block the referendum could have contained up to 700,000 more votes, meaning that more than 55 percent of the population might have attempted to take part in the referendum.

The counting, under strained circumstances, came at the end of a long day, which began before dawn with voters and poll workers across the region defending polling places from closure by national and regional police forces, acting on orders from Spain’s constitutional court to block the vote.

Voters in Barcelona chanted “We have voted,” as the referendum ended.

Activists in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya erupted as the Catalan government announced that more than 2 million votes had been cast in favor of independence.

The effort to conduct a public exercise in democracy while simultaneously hiding ballot boxes from the police gave rise to surreal scenes across the region.

Poll workers in Igualada, outside Barcelona, raced to prevent the police from confiscating ballot boxes.

While the atmosphere at many polling places in the region was tense but calm, with limited efforts to block voting by the autonomous Catalan police force, known as the Mossos, images of Spanish police forces from outside the region using violence at a few polling places stunned and angered even those in the region opposed to secession.

SPAIN OUT. During the '1-O Catalan independence referendum' spanish National Police and Civil guards prevent people from entering to the polling centers to vote. Barcelona, Spain, on October 01, 2017. Photo by Almagro/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Spanish police officers used force to keep voters in parts of Barcelona from taking part in a referendum on Catalonia’s independence on Sunday.

Photo: Almagro/Sipa via AP Images)

Speaking as poll workers counted those ballots that had not been seized by the police, Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the Catalan Generalitat, a local executive with centuries of history, suggested that the next steps could take time. Puigdemont made clear, however, that he expected the vote to result in the formation of “an independent state.”

“Today, we have earned our right to sovereignty and respect,” Puigdemont said, calling on the European Union to help mediate dialogue with Spain. “This is no longer an internal affair, this is a European affair,” he added.

Some European leaders, including the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, had indeed deplored the use of force by Spanish police officers against Catalan voters.

Although an international observer mission of former parliamentarians praised the referendum, the EU released a statement Monday morning making it clear that it would not intervene in what it considers an internal affair of a member state. The European Commission added that in the event of a subsequent referendum considered legal by Spain, Catalonia would find itself outside the EU.

Earlier on Sunday, Turull hailed the courage of voters who had turned out in large numbers, braving long lines and what he called “savage” violence inflicted by police officers from outside the region.

“We want to live in peace without violence,” Puigdemont said, “outside a state that can give us no reason to be with them.”

The Catalan leader underscored his outrage on Twitter, sharing images of voters being beaten and a political cartoon comparing the anti-referendum police violence to an iconic image from the Spanish civil war of a Republican soldier being killed by fascists.

In Madrid, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy seemed untroubled by the shocking images of police violence, which he made no mention of in a televised address. Rajoy instead insisted that the Catalan referendum, which he called “an attack” on the Spanish state, had been so severely hampered that it effectively had “not taken place.”

As British journalist Paul Mason reported from the Plaça de Catalunya in central Barcelona, where supporters of independence watched the prime minister’s speech, his remarks seemed to many in Catalonia to have come not just from a different country, but a parallel universe.

After claiming that the referendum had been stopped, ignoring the vast numbers of votes cast before the eyes of the international press, Rajoy went on to praise the national police officers deployed to the region who, he insisted had “reacted in a peaceful way,” despite copious visual evidence that they used excessive force to disperse voters at some polling places who were clearly peaceful.

The most severe injuries, the Catalan government said, were caused by the firing of rubber bullets, which required two voters to undergo surgery.

Ada Colau, Barcelona’s mayor, who opposes independence for Catalonia, but insisted that the region should have been allowed to vote on the matter freely, called on Rajoy to resign.

As the Catalans stressed their commitment to nonviolence, several voters at a polling place in Barcelona told me that it was outrageous that their region was given less autonomy than another part of Spain, the Basque Country, where militants had for years carried out terrorist attacks in pursuit of independence.

While thousands of police officers from outside Catalonia took the heavy-handed measures to stop voting at a small number of polling places that drew the most media attention, the larger regional force restricted its efforts to issuing stern warnings to voters and standing aside as ballots were cast.

For this “passivity,” the Catalan force was severely criticized by the central government’s representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo.

The regional government, in turn, called for Millo to resign.

In response to the violence, the board of Football Club Barcelona — the team that was, for years under the Franco dictatorship, a focus of Catalan national pride — demanded that a match scheduled for Sunday afternoon be postponed. The Spanish league, however, denied the request, apparently as part of an official effort to pretend that all was well in Catalonia.

The club then decided to go ahead with the match against Las Palmas, a team from the Canary Islands that had been granted permission to add Spanish flag patches to their jerseys for the game, but in an empty stadium to make it clear that the day was anything but normal.

Among those most clearly moved by the day’s events was Gerard Piqué, a Catalan native who stars for both the club and the Spanish national team. The defender, who expressed pride when he voted earlier in the day, was visibly shaken as he addressed the media after the game.

Piqué, whose Catalan nationalism has led to him being booed by Spaniards when he represents the country, teared up as he said that he would be willing to stop playing for Spain if he is no longer wanted.

Several of the fan-owned club’s members, including the former captain and manager Pep Guardiola, were angered by the board’s refusal to simply forfeit the match in protest.

One club member who took part in the effort to defend the referendum, and was among those who slept in a polling station the night before, told The Intercept that he was “ashamed” FC Barcelona had played the match on a day of such violence against Catalans. “I will quit FCB if the board does not resign this week,” the activist said. “Where is the dignity?”

The wounding of more than 800 voters by Spanish police officers provoked widespread anger and even led to scuffles in some places between officers from the autonomous regional force, the Mossos, and Spain’s national guard, the Guardia Civil.

Supporters of Catalan independence in Barcelona, who mobilized to defend the polling places, had anticipated the split between local and national police forces. One activist, a researcher named Jordi who requested that his last name not be used, told me at one occupied polling station in Barcelona the night before the vote that a special bond had formed recently between the population and their police force in the aftermath of the deadly Islamist terrorist attack in Barcelona in August.

When I pointed out that it was natural that the Mossos might react differently than Spanish officers from outside the region since they are Catalan too, Jordi replied that “the question of who is Catalan is difficult,” defying simple definition. But the Mossos officers, even those with roots in other parts of Spain, are all “citizens of Catalonia,” Jordi continued, and the people expect them to defend their fellow citizens, even against threats to public order prompted by orders from Spain’s central government.

Update: Oct. 2, 2017, 7:00 a.m.
This piece was updated to include the referendum result.

Top Photo: Volunteer poll workers counted referendum ballots by the light of their phones during a blackout at the La Llacuna school in the Poble Nou neighborhood of Barcelona on Sunday night.

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