Catalans prepare to defy Madrid in banned independence vote
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Catalans are expected to defy Spanish authorities and attempt to vote in a banned independence referendum today, raising fears of unrest in the wealthy northeastern region.
The referendum, declared illegal by Spain’s central government, has thrown the country into its worst constitutional crisis in decades and raised fears of street violence as a test of will between Madrid and Barcelona plays out.
In a sign of how the planned vote has polarised the country, thousands of prounity demonstrators gathered in Spain’s major cities, including Barcelona, to express their fierce opposition to Catalonia’s attempt to break away.
In the region itself, hundreds of supporters of the referendum spent the day with their children playing football, board games and ping pong in schools, traditionally used as voting stations in Spain, to keep them open until voting starts at 9 am (0700 GMT) today.
The government said just a small percentage of schools were occupied, however, and that it had verified that most of the more than 2,300 earmarked for the vote were closed.
In those where they gathered, parents brought sleeping bags and prepared to bed down on gym mats.
“We don’t understand why we can’t express in a peaceful manner the simplest expression of democracy - a vote,” said Pablo Larranaga, as he stood in a school in Barcelona surrounded by parents and small children.
“We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. We are going to try to vote in the only way we know, which is peacefully.”
It is still unclear whether the referendum will go ahead despite the regional government’s assertions that it will proceed and Madrid’s insistence that it will block the move.
The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain’s Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 constitution.
A minority of around 40 per cent of Catalans support independence, polls show, although a majority want to hold a referendum on the issue. The region of 7.5 million people has an economy larger than that of Portugal.
However much voting takes place, a “yes” result is likely, given that most of those who support independence are expected to cast ballots while most of those against it are not.
Police monitored schools earmarked as polling stations and occupied the Catalan government’s communications hub on Saturday in an effort to prevent the referendum from going ahead.