Catalonia Votes For Independence In Chaotic Vote Marred By Police Violence

Catalonia voted overwhelmingly for independence from Spain, but it's not at all clear that the vote will amount to anything.

In a chaotic vote that was marked by violence as police tried to stop people from voting, Catalonia ended up voting overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Spain:

The results of a controversial and chaotic referendum in the Catalonia region of northeast Spain on Sunday showed landslide support for independence for the restive but affluent area, a lopsided vote sure to be vigorously challenged by the constitutional court and central government in Madrid as illegitimate and illegal.

According to the Catalan government, 90 percent of the ballots cast were for independence — with 2,020,144 voting yes and 176,566 no.

Minutes after the first few thousand votes were posted, the regional president and leading secessionist, Carles Puigdemont, appeared on stage to announce that Catalonia had won “the right to independence” and called on Europe to support its split from Spain.

But nothing about the vote was regular — or orderly, transparent or peaceful. Images of police beating voters in stylish, cosmopolitan Barcelona fueled a widespread perception that Europe, in particular, and the West, in general – far from cheering on the breakup of Spain – face yet more tensions and dislocation.

And it is far from clear that Catalonia is any closer to independence. The vote left the region and nation deeply divided.

In a television address late Sunday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said there was no real independence vote in Catalonia. He said a majority of the residents of the region had not even showed up at the polls.

Over the weekend, boisterous activist-voters had brought their children into schools to defend the polling stations deemed illegal by the central government in Madrid.

Soon after the polls opened, Spanish riot police smashed into the voting centers, their raids caught on mobile phone cameras that showed them whipping ordinary citizens with rubber truncheons and dragging them away by their hair.

The plebiscite produced anxiety and shock across Europe — where many condemned the violence by the police but also worried that Catalan secessionists were violating the constitution.

The secessionists said Spain’s heavy-handed attempt to snuff out the referendum stirred memories of the county’s dark decades of dictatorship.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau called the day’s violence between police and citizens “a rupture” in society.

Jordi Turull, the spokesman for the Catalonia regional government, described Spain’s use of police to suppress the vote as “the shame of Europe.”

But many in Spain saw a manipulative propaganda play by secessionists to stage a one-sided referendum designed to produce a yes vote no matter what.

“This was a sad day,” said Ines Arrimadas, a member of a center-right party in Catalonia who opposed the vote. “It was crazy to hold this referendum.”

She told Catalonia’s public broadcaster, which is staunchly pro-secession, that “on this TV broadcast you will believe the result, but no one on the outside will.”

Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, called the day’s violence “unpleasant” but “proportional.”

Yet the portrayal of the day’s events could not have been worse for the central government. Although Madrid might have had the Spanish constitution on its side, the images being blasted around the world showed peaceful citizens being dragged away from the ballot boxes by helmeted police dressed all in black.

The vote in Catalonia was a mass act of civil disobedience, organized by the regional government but propelled by WhatsApp groups, encrypted messages and clandestine committees.

There were stirring moments of people power — and the activists who organized the vote were often two steps ahead of Madrid.

The vote in Catalonia was a mass act of civil disobedience, organized by the regional government but propelled by WhatsApp groups, encrypted messages and clandestine committees.

There were stirring moments of people power — and the activists who organized the vote were often two steps ahead of Madrid.

The past two weeks have seen mass demonstrations and a high-risk game of cat-and-mouse, as the secessionists sought to carry out a vote that Madrid vowed it would stop.

As the central government shut down websites promoting the referendum, new apps popped up to guide voters.

The Catalan government, dominated by breakaway leaders, said that despite police raids, more than 70 percent of the polling stations were open Sunday afternoon.

Anna Fernandez, handy at computers, was asked to come quickly to the Escola Nostra Llar, Our Home School, just before the voting began to help get the glitchy digital lists to work.

“Then the police came through the windows,” said the mother of three, all of whom attend the school. “They came with big hammers. The old people locked their arms together and tried to stop them. They were shouting at us, ‘Where are the ballots? Where are the boxes?’ But by then, I don’t know what happened, but all the material, the papers, the computers, they had all disappeared.”

She smiled and said, “And then the ballots were found and the people are starting to vote again.”

Regardless of any questions about the legitimacy of the outcome of the vote, Catalan leaders are pushing forward with calls for independence:

BARCELONA, Spain — A day after a referendum on independence for Catalonia that was marred by clashes between supporters and police officers, the Spanish region’s leaders were meeting on Monday to determine how to convert the vote into a state free from the rest of the country.

Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, said late Sunday that Catalans had won the right to have their own state and that he would soon present the result of the referendum to the regional Parliament to make it binding.

The Catalan government announced that 90 percent of almost 2.3 million voters had voted in favor of independence. But several issues stood in the way of a consensus on the vote: The figures could not be independently verified, the voting registers were based on a census whose validity is contested and — most importantly — Spain’s constitutional court had ordered that the referendum be suspended.

Having defied Madrid over the referendum, Mr. Puigdemont’s government risks increasing tensions even further if he proceeds with a declaration of independence. The move could prompt his immediate suspension from office.

Rafael Catalá, Spain’s justice minister, warned Monday morning that the central government in Madrid was prepared to use its emergency powers to prevent a unilateral declaration of independence. Under Spanish law, the government can take full administrative control of Catalonia.

“If somebody tries to declare the independence of part of the territory — something that cannot be done — we will have to do everything possible to apply the law,” Mr. Catalá said on national television on Monday. Most polling stations stayed open on Sunday, he said, “because the security forces decided that it wasn’t worth using force because of the consequences that it could have.”

Catalan separatists face several major hurdles to having the vote recognized as legitimate, but simply holding the referendum amounted to a victory of sorts. It helped them shift the debate from the issue of independence — which has split Catalans, and for which there had not been majority backing — to the argument over whether voters had a right to decide on statehood.

In the short term, the police crackdown could help Catalan separatists, who are part of a fragile coalition in the regional government, broaden their support. On Sunday, Ada Colau, the influential leftist mayor of Barcelona who has been ambivalent about independence, called on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to resign, describing his decision to bring in police officers from around the country as an act of cowardice.

“Today, Catalan society isn’t discussing whether the result is valid or not, but is in a state of shock about how the voting took place,” Ernest Urtasun, a leftist Catalan politician, said on Spanish television on Monday.

Mr. Puigdemont is committed to declaring independence, but he is also pressuring the international community to mediate in the conflict and to condemn the Madrid-ordered police clampdown.

“The European Union cannot now continue to look the other side,” Mr. Puigdemont said around midnight Sunday, although the European bloc has shown no sign so far that it was willing to support the separatist movement.

In a statement, the European Commission — the executive arm of the bloc — called for “unity and stability,” but it showed no sign that it would reverse its position and intervene on behalf of supporters of independence.

The commission described the dispute as “an internal matter for Spain,” and reiterated its warning that an independent Catalonia would not be part of the European Union.

Juan Ignacio Zoido, the Spanish interior minister, acknowledged on Monday that Catalonia had witnessed “a very sad day,” but he defended the Spanish police and blamed separatist leaders for pushing Catalans “to the brink of a precipice” by encouraging them to vote in an illegal referendum.

Mr. Zoido said the police had intervened only to withdraw election-related equipment but had been confronted by major obstacles, including voters forming a human chain to stop police officers from leaving polling stations.

“The resistance was passive in some cases, but also active in others,” he told the Spanish broadcaster Antena 3. Clashes, he said, mostly started after police officers were stranded inside polling stations, from which they “had to get out in order not to get caught in a more serious situation.” Any use of rubber bullets was “to avoid something even worse,” he said.

That version of events, however, was firmly rejected by Catalan leaders, who accused Mr. Rajoy of returning Spain to authoritarianism.

The vote also set off a debate in Madrid over the loyalty of security forces, after the Mossos d’Esquadra, Catalonia’s autonomous police force, failed to follow Madrid’s orders and close down polling stations early Sunda

What happens next depends largely on what the Catalan government chooses to do, and how Madrid chooses to respond to those moves. At this point, it seems unlikely that any there will be much if any international recognition for the legitimacy of the referendum notwithstanding the violence that marred the vote, and the European Union clearly isn’t going to come to the aid of the Catalans in any respect. Additionally, it doesn’t appear as if there’s much that Catalan leaders can do on a practical level that would actually advance their cause or much they can do if the central government moves in to take over administration of the region, which they are apparently authorized to do by virtue of the Spanish Constitution and Spanish law. At the same time, though, it seems obvious that Madrid needs to proceed carefully in how it responds to what happened. The images yesterday of police forces using batons and rubber bullets to prevent crowds from voting did not come across well on television at all and could generate at least some popular sympathy for the Catalonian independence bid internationally and possibly even inside Spain. Those images combined with the fact that Prime Minister Rajoy is leading a minority government and has public support problems of his own separate and apart from the Catalan issue could end up creating political chaos in Madrid, and perhaps even lead to new elections. Such elections don’t seem as though they’d have any real impact on the situation, though, since even the opposition parties in Spain seem united in opposition to anything that would concede the territorial integrity of Spain in response to the Catalan referendum.

Because of these factors and others, it appears right now as if the referendum is going end up having little real influence on Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of Spain, at least in the short run. There’s little that the region can do that would advance their cause without the agreement of the central government, which clearly isn’t going to come regardless of who is in the control in Madrid. That leaves them with the option of what amount to purely symbolic moves that won’t actually accomplish much of anything. Of course, there is the “option” of something more violent, but that seems unlikely, and in any case would likely merely give Madrid the option of responding in force. Therefore, it looks like this vote will amount to about as little as previous Catalan moves for independence have and that the region, which has been part of what eventually became Spain since at least the 12th Century, won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. KM says:

    could generate at least some popular sympathy for the Catalonian independence bid internationally and possibly even inside Spain.

    Oh absolutely. I’d go so far as to say it was human rights violations brazenly carried out on camera by government thugs. Stop and think what the world would say and do if we saw that happen in NK or Saudi Arabia or India then realize this happened in Europe in an EU nation.

    The government could have easily declared the vote invalid and ignored it. They could have declared it nonbinding and pointless but let it happen to keep the peace. There was no reason to beat people who were literally just voting. It’s bad optics in the extreme. Spain put itself in a nasty international position it didn’t have to by bloodying people who can rightly say they were just voting for freedom.

  2. Gustopher says:

    Nothing quite encourages an independence movement like a brutal, repressive crackdown.

    Heck of a job, Madrid.

  3. mike shupp says:

    Yeah, if Catalonia has been part of Spain “since the 12th century” it certainly ought to remain part of Spain today. just as British America has been since — oops!

    Well, a safer example. How about Portugal? Nobody here is ever going to insist on something so silly as “Independence for Portugal”, right? I mean …. there’s history, right?

    Really, Gosh Darnit! all of Iberia just ought to be still part of the Roman Empire. That’s the way God would like things to be — or Juppiter Maximus — and how can we mortals disagree.


  4. DrDaveT says:

    If Madrid really believed that popular support for Catalan independence were so dilute, they would not have had any reason to suppress the vote. On the contrary; they should have encouraged everyone with an opinion to make sure it was heard.

    Democracy 101: having your police assault people who are peacefully expressing an opinion makes many things much more clear than you would like them to be.