Violence erupted between Spanish national police and Catalan separatists attempting to vote on Sunday, causing the balloting to descend into confrontation and chaos. According to Catalan authorities, however, the vote yielded a landslide for independence from Spain. Over 2.2 million people voted in the banned referendum, and the regional government said nearly 90 percent of those voters backed independence.
A Catalan spokesman also said 750,000 votes could not be counted, with polling stations closed due to interference from the national government. The Catalan government has promised to move forward with independence, but Madrid has warned it may suspend Catalan autonomy.
Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain, located in its northeast corner. It is a highly industrialized region with an economy is larger than that of Portugal, and with its own language, Catalan. Catalans suffered heavily after the financial crisis of 2008, which led to unemployment and rising debt levels in the whole country.
Catalonia has attempted to gain its independence by plebiscite before, but the issue faces a major hurdle: the Spanish High Court of Justice has ruled that such a vote is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, symbolic referenda were held between 2009 and 2011, and Catalonia held its first true referendum in 2014. This time, it was the Spanish Constitutional Court that ruled the vote would be illegal according to the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which requires the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.”
Despite these setbacks, Catalan regional officials announced this past summer that they would hold a referendum on October 1 proposing full autonomy from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid tried to nullify the referendum ahead of time, calling on the Catalan regional security forces to close voting centers, which they refused to do. In response, the government shut down websites, ended advertising campaigns that supported the vote, blocked the use of a voting location app created to assist voters, and even raided the facilities of the companies that print the paper ballots. Neither the legal ruling nor the government interference deterred Catalonia from holding the referendum.
When the ballot proceeded on Sunday, the police responded by sending in units in riot gear, who clashed with the Catalans attempting to vote, breaking into voting centers, beating people with batons, and shooting them with rubber bullets. Catalans responded by shouting, “Out with the occupying forces!” and by singing the regional anthem. The Catalonian government claims over 750 people were injured by the police; 12 police were injured.
The heavy-handed tactics used by the police have added momentum to the separatist movement, according to many news analysts. “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,” said Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont after the violence.