Despite Spanish government’s efforts to stop the referendum, Catalans overwhelmingly voted for an independent homeland on Sunday. The conflict between Madrid and Barcelona has now reached a decisive stage, report Helena Spongenberg and Eric Maurice.
Catalan separatist leaders will press ahead with the region’s independence in the wake of a referendum on Sunday (1 October), which the Spanish government said “did not happen”.
“With this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form a republic,” Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan government, said at the end of a day marked by Spanish police violence inside and outside polling stations.
A meeting of the Catalan government was called on Monday morning, and the regional parliament could meet on Monday or Tuesday to declare Catalonia’s independence.
On Monday morning, the region’s authorities said that more than 2.2 million people voted – a turnout of 42.3 per cent – and that the Yes to independence won with more than 90 per cent.
“There was no referendum today,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in a TV address.
He called on Catalan separatists to “give up on taking new steps that lead nowhere”.
He said that “the vast majority of the people of Catalonia refused to participate in the secessionists’ challenge” and that “the constitution has prevailed”.
“We have done what we had to do,” he said, calling the referendum a “premeditated and conscious attack” against Spain.
“We have fulfilled our obligation to defend the rule of law. We have acted within the law, and only within the law,” he said.
Over the past few days, the Guardia Civil, Spain’s police, seized ballots and removed people from polling stations by force. Rubber bullets were also fired.
Catalan authorities said that more than 800 people were injured.
Voting had started very slowly in the morning, as a lack of a proper internet connection made it difficult to check the citizens’ right to vote – with volunteers using a mobile app at the election tables. But later a better data connection started to speed things up.
Families with children, the elderly and the ill were given priority. Once inside, people picked up a ballot and an envelope, and had their ID noted and checked on the app, and cast their vote.
Many people cried with joy but most cheered with happiness and euphoria. “I have voted for the first time,” said 18-year-old Martina Vergol. “It was very emotional, I came out crying.”
She had spent the night inside the building with friends and others to keep the polling station open. They went outside when the ballot boxes arrived at 7am and stayed there with the crowd until all the votes had been counted and the results had been reported.
“It has been a very intense day and it still is,” she said. “We have to stay here, but it is very scary.”
“The easy way out would be to leave, but what do you do afterwards, then? Now we are all here trying to protect our vote with our body. We’ll allow them to hurt us just to gain time, it’s crazy,” she said.
During the day, organisers advised people that if the police came, everyone should sit on the ground to make a human shield and buy time to hide the ballot boxes. They were also advised to do so while the votes were being counted.
“This is the first time I’m sitting on the street, and I am 77 years old,” said one woman with a smile.
When voting stopped at eight in the evening, the crowd started to chant: “We have voted! We have voted!”
Thousands of people gathered on Barcelona’s Catalonia Square in the evening, to wait for the vote’s results.
They listened to the declarations by Catalan and Spanish political leaders.
‘Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate’
Catalan leader Puigdemont denounced a “brutal repression” and said that Spain wrote a “shameful page in the history of its relations with Catalonia”.
The Spanish PM said he was – “as always” – open to dialogue and that he would address the Congress of deputies on Monday.
Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the Socialist Party, the main opposition party, called on Rajoy to “negotiate, negotiate and negotiate” with the Catalan leadership. He said that both Rajoy and Puigdemont were responsible for the violence on the day.
Albert Rivera, the leader of the centrist Ciudadanos party, said he supported Rajoy against Puigdemont’s “attempt at a coup” but that Rajoy had been “naive”.
Radical left Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias condemned police violence and said that Rajoy “shamed” Spaniards.
Before addressing Spanish citizens on TV, Rajoy had spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Spain’s EU partners reacted cautiously, with only Belgium’s and Slovenia’s PM expressing concerns about the violence.
As of Monday morning, the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament have still not reacted.