More than three hundred people have been injured by police in Catalonia after the national government staged a crackdown on an illegal referendum held by the Spanish region on Sunday. Local citizens have been taking actions to protect polling stations from raids, with reports of farmers using their tractors to block roads to the polls, and local firefighters entering into standoffs with riot police armed with batons and rubber bullets to protect demonstrators. Police have seized 10m ballot papers and more than 1.5m referendum leaflets and posters. This follows raids by the Guarda Cvilia militia on 20 September under Operation Anubis to detain Catalan administrators and business leaders. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has said the police have violated human rights, though the Spanish government maintain their actions have been proportionate and professional.
Amidst the scenes of violence many Catalans celebrated the arrival of polling boxes, though the region is bitterly divided, with many of those who oppose independence expected to boycott the vote, called by Puigdemont, who leads the Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) coalition in the Catalan Parliament. His coalition won a slim majority in 2015 elections (though with 48% they fell short of winning a majority of the popular vote), on a platform of declaring independence, following demonstrations in 2010 and 2012 in Barcelona, and an earlier non-binding referendum in 2014, boycotted by opponents, in which 90% of voters backed succession.
This led to backlash from the national People’s Party government of Mariano Rajoy, who hinted he would not stop at military intervention to prevent succession, to defend the “sovereignty of the Spanish people”. Unlike Britain, which has an unwritten constitution which easily allowed for the Scottish people to vote on independence, the codified Spanish constitution bans succession of any region, making it impossible for Catalonia to hold a binding referendum legally. After the Catalonian Parliament approved the referendum on 6 September, the Spanish constitutional court suspended the vote the following day and then later annulled it.
The Catalan independence movement invokes the right to self-determination as its legal basis for the referendum, though because Catalonia isn’t a colony the right doesn’t apply under international law in this case. Catalans have been calling for independence since 2010 when the Spanish constitutional court restricted the autonomy the region had won from central government in 2006. Catalonia is also Spain’s richest region, wealthier than Portugal and accounting for 19% of Spanish GDP. Many Catalans are unhappy with the level of redistribution from Catalonia’s citizens to poorer Spanish regions. Catalonia has its own cultural identity, with its own language, laws and customs, which were opposed by numerous Spanish kings trying to impose a Spanish identity. Dictator General Francisco Franco killed 3,500 people when he took control of the region and sought to destroy Catalan separatism.
Opinion polls show that a majority think a democratic referendum should be held in Catalonia, but the polls have also shown since 2014 a drop in support for independence (as Spain has grown economically since the recession) which now only hovers around 40%. The outcome of Sunday’s referendum is likely to favour independence because of opposition boycotts. At that point either a settlement will have to be negotiated between the national and Catalan governments, or the national government will invoke it right to dissolve the Catalan Government and take control of the region. The Catalan people will hope for the former, but intransigence on both sides means the latter is looking increasingly more likely.