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Catalonia's Independence Vote Descends Into Chaos and Clashes
Catalonia's defiant attempt to stage an independence referendum descended into chaos on Sunday, with hundreds injured in clashes with police in one of the most serious tests of Spain's democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s.
National police officers in riot gear, sent by the central government in Madrid from other parts of Spain, used rubber bullets and truncheons in some places as they fanned out in thick phalanxes across Catalonia, the restive northeastern region, to shut down polling stations and seize ballot boxes.
Over the course of the referendum, the day turned almost surreal. The voting went ahead in many towns and cities, with men and women, young and old, singing and chanting as they lined up for hours to cast ballots, even as confrontations with the police turned violent elsewhere.
The clashes quickly spoiled what had been a festive, if expectant, atmosphere among voters, many of whom had camped inside polling stations to ensure that they would remain open. Even at the end of the day, many of those same voters stayed on, fearful that officers might arrive to seize ballot boxes.
More than 750 people were injured in the crackdown and scuffling that ensued, Catalan officials said, while a dozen Spanish police officers were wounded, according to Spain's interior ministry.
Despite the violence, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, at a news conference Sunday evening, characterized the police actions as the response of "a mature, advanced, friendly and tolerant democracy – but also a firm and determined one."
But proponents of the referendum immediately pointed to the heavy use of police force as a blight not only on his conservative government, but also on Spain's still relatively young democracy.
"The image of the Spanish state has reached levels of shame that will stay with them forever," the leader of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, told a crowd in the town of Sant Julià de Ramis, the scene of clashes.
"Today, the Spanish state has lost a lot more than it had already lost, and Catalan citizens have won a lot more than they had won until now," he said.
The Catalan vote has been watched with rising trepidation – and no sign of support – by a European Union wary of stoking forces of fragmentation already tugging at the bloc and many member states, where populist and nationalist parties have surged in recent elections.
Nationalism in Spain, a country with a long and painful 20th century history that included civil war and fascism, has been all but dormant since the coming of democracy after the death of the dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.
There are already signs that Catalonia's threat to fracture the country is changing that, and that the clashes on Sunday will further polarize and harden supporters on both sides.
Because of the tensions Sunday, F.C. Barcelona, the soccer club, played a match behind closed doors in its Camp Nou stadium, where the opposing Spanish team came with special uniforms emblazoned with the Spanish flag – something unusual here.
Yet none of the tensions or lack of support – Scotland and Venezuela were among the few backers of the referendum – has dimmed aspirations for independence in Catalonia, a prosperous region with a distinct language, history and culture.
Yearnings for a separate state have ebbed and flowed for generations, but rose in recent years as Catalans complained that Madrid was unfairly siphoning off their wealth and denying them the right to choose their own political destiny.
The Madrid government, with the backing of Spanish courts, declared the referendum unconstitutional and ordered the vote suspended. But that did not stop Catalans from lining up before sunrise on Sunday, massing on rain-slicked streets in towns and cities across the region.
"Spain has shown us today its ugliest and darkest face, that which we really thought had disappeared 40 years ago," said Mario Pulpillo, 54. "You simply can't use violence against people who just want to vote."
Despite the police threat, Mr. Pulpillo, who uses a wheelchair, said he went to vote "to make sure this was our feast of democracy, not our humiliation at the hands of a Spanish state that believes in repression."
Voters like him made the turnout an extraordinary show of determination in the face of a steady drumbeat of threats from Madrid. Though it was far from clear that Sunday's vote would yield a reliable result, both sides quickly claimed victory – and victimization.
The Catalan authorities maintained that balloting had proceeded in almost three-quarters of polling stations and seemed determined to use the vote as further evidence of the legitimacy of their claim for a separate nation.
Spanish authorities accused the separatist government of irresponsibly encouraging voters to violate Spanish law and declared that the referendum had been successfully disrupted.
"If there is something to conclude from today, it is the strength of Spain's democratic state," Mr. Rajoy said. "We have acted with the law and only with the law and we have shown that our democratic state has resources to defend itself against such a serious attack."
Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Spain's deputy prime minister, later praised the Spanish police for blocking a vote that "couldn't be celebrated and wasn't celebrated."
She told a news conference that the Catalan government had acted "with absolute irresponsibility, which had to be overcome by the professionalism of the security forces."
After the extent of the crackdown became apparent, Ada Colau, the left-wing mayor of Barcelona, called on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to resign over his "cowardly" and unjustified police intervention.
"Today, we're not talking about independence or not, but about a breakup between Mariano Rajoy and his government with Catalonia," she told reporters.
Overnight, Catalans had used tractors to block police access to some rural municipalities so that the vote could go on. In other places, residents removed the doors of polling stations to ensure that the police could not bolt them on Sunday.
As Sunday approached, the Madrid government tried everything it could to thwart the referendum: disabling the internet, confiscating ballots, detaining some officials and threatening scores more with prosecution.
The vote took place anyway in an atmosphere of cat and mouse and in improvised conditions, with a disputed census used as the voting list.
Catalan officials instead relied on privately printed ballots, and changed the voting rules an hour before polls were scheduled to open, to allow voters to cast a ballot at any poll station, without using an envelope and whether registered there or not.
Enric Millo, the Spanish government's representative in Catalonia, said the last-minute change turned what was already an illegal referendum into "a joke."
Mr. Millo deplored the fact the national police were forced to take over from Catalan police officers who failed to stop the voting. "We're being forced to do what we didn't want to do," he said.
Some videos posted on social media even showed arguments and some tussling between Spanish national police and the Catalan police.
The Catalan police also intervened in Barcelona's main downtown square to prevent clashes between separatists and a small group of far-right partisans of Spain.
A few outsiders had traveled to Catalonia from other countries to act as observers, saying they wanted to make sure that the police did not use force against voters.
Dimitrij Rupel, a former foreign minister of Slovenia, led a delegation of 35 foreign officials invited by the Catalan government. After watching the police intervene, he said that the "police have nothing to do with the democratic process – they shouldn't be here."
Others compared the situation in Catalonia with that in their own independence-minded regions, precisely what has concerned European Union officials and neighboring governments.
"Every person in the world should have the right to decide their present and future, which of course means the right to vote," said Andrea Favaro, an Italian lawyer, who waited inside a polling station early on Sunday. Mr. Favoro is from the Veneto region that has held a nonbinding ballot on independence from Italy.
Recent opinion polls suggest that slightly less than half of Catalonia's 7.5 million people support separation from Spain, but separatist parties won a majority in the region's Parliament in 2015 and their influence has grown.
Many say Catalonia would face a perilous and uncertain future outside Spain, the market for most of the region's goods, and would not be assured of being readmitted to the European Union.
Others complained that the thrust for independence had deepened divisions within the region, whose vibrant economy has attracted families from inside and outside Spain.
Olga Noheda, a doctor in Centelles, said one of her patients, an older man, began crying in her examination room, and explained that his granddaughter had begun expressing dislike for Spaniards.
"He was very sad, because he didn't understand where it all came from," she said. "He migrated to Catalonia many years ago, from Seville, and he was wondering if his granddaughter was aware that he was a Spaniard."
[Source: By Raphael Minder and Ellen Barry, The New York Times, Barcelona, 01Oct17]
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