On Sunday, September 30, Catalonia, Spain’s northeastern most region, attempted to hold a referendum for independence. Madrid, backed by Spanish courts, declared the referendum unconstitutional and refused to recognize it.
Madrid ordered the vote be suspended, disabled internet services in the region, threatened many with prosecution, and sent riot police to shut down voting stations and confiscate ballots. BBC reports that while tensions escalated, over 800 citizens were injured as police fired rubber bullets and clashed with protesters in Barcelona, reports The New York Times.
Spain’s interior ministry stated that dozens of police officers were hurt in the clashes. Images and videos of the riots show officers dragging people out of polling stations and using batons to inflict damage.
By midnight, both sides claimed victory. The Catalan government announced that independence was approved by almost 90 percent of about 2.3 million voters, reports CNN. On the other hand, the Spanish government claimed that the referendum was disrupted successfully. A spokesperson for Catalonia stated that more than 750,000 votes could not be counted due to closed polling stations.
Sky News reports that the Spanish government stands by its decision to stop Sunday’s ballot, with many Spanish leaders urging Catalonian politicians to drop their plan to divide the nation. “We did what we had to do,” stated Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, characterizing the police actions as a justified response to the acts of the secessionists.
Rajoy went on to say that, “if there is something to conclude from today, it is the strength of the Spain’s democratic state… 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”.
Carles Puigdemont, the leader of Catalonia, stood behind Catalonians’ right to vote and claim independence while addressing a crowd in Sant Juliá de Ramis. “The image of the Spanish state has reached levels of shame that will stay with them forever,” Puidgemont told the crowd, “today, the Spanish state has lost a lot more than it already lost, and Catalan citizens have won a lot more than they had won until now”.
Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, called on Prime Minister Rajoy to resign over his “cowardly” and unjust police intervention. He explained that “today, we’re not talking about independence or not, but about a breakup between Mariano Rajoy and his government with Catalonia.”
The European Union watched Catalan’s vote closely given the increase in recent European Nationalist and populist movements. In the 20th century, Spanish nationalism has been all but quiet. Catalonia however, has long since yearned for independence since the establishment of a democratic Spain, post Franco.
The event clarified nothing about the status of the region, where sentiments of an independent Catalan have existed for decades. Importantly, many see this event as one of the largest tests of Spanish democracy since the Franco regime’s fall in 1975.