Cat­alo­nian vot­ers go to the polls to­day in the in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum amid a dra­co­nian crack­down by the Spanish au­thor­i­ties. Paul Hutcheon re­ports

The Herald on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

CAT­ALO­NIA will go to the polls to­day in the shadow of an au­thor­i­tar­ian po­lice crack­down or­ches­trated by Madrid de­signed to stop the ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence from Spain.

Thou­sands of po­lice of­fi­cers have been drafted in to pre­vent the vote go­ing ahead in what is be­ing seen as one of the big­gest crises in Spain since the Franco era. Many com­men­ta­tors have spo­ken of the “ghost of Franco” hang­ing over events due to the ex­treme hard­line na­ture of the Spanish govern­ment’s re­sponse to the Cat­alo­nian ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence. In other ma­jor de­vel­op­ments, a Spanish govern­ment spokesman said the tech­nol­ogy in­fra­struc­ture for the ref­er­en­dum had been dis­man­tled, mak­ing the vote “ab­so­lutely im­pos­si­ble”.

Google was also dragged into the grow­ing in­ter­na­tional row af­ter be­ing or­dered by the courts to delete a vot­ing app which could boost turnout. Spanish na­tional po­lice have also sealed off 1,300 of 2,315 schools des­ig­nated as polling sta­tions for the ref­er­en­dum.

The Cata­lan re­gional govern­ment and lo­cal civic groups have in­sisted they are en­ti­tled to ex­er­cise their demo­cratic rights and in­tend to push ahead with the in­de­pen­dence vote to­day.

Pro-in­de­pen­dence sup­port­ers be­lieve Madrid has ig­nored the re­gion’s long­stand­ing de­mands for a greater de­gree of au­ton­omy and fis­cal pow­ers. Cat­alo­nia con­trib­utes one-fifth of Spain’s econ­omy and has Barcelona as its re­gional cap­i­tal. On Fri­day, the Cata­lan govern­ment un­veiled white plas­tic con­tain­ers it said would be used as bal­lot boxes and Barcelona has wit­nessed large street demon­stra­tions in favour of the vote for weeks. More than 2,300 polling sta­tions are ex­pected to be set up for 5.3 mil­lion vot­ers, Cata­lan govern­ment spokesman Jordi Tu­rull said. “Ev­ery­one can stay calm, be­cause we’ll be able to vote,” he added. How­ever, Spanish au­thor­i­ties have taken firm steps to stop the ref­er­en­dum in its tracks. Po­lice forces act­ing on judges’ or­ders have ar­rested re­gional of­fi­cials in the crack­down. Po­lice have also con­fis­cated about 10 mil­lion bal­lot pa­pers and some 1.3 mil­lion posters ad­ver­tis­ing the ref­er­en­dum, and have blocked the dis­tri­bu­tion of bal­lot boxes.

Par­ents sup­port­ing the bal­lot across the north­east­ern re­gion ar­ranged to oc­cupy schools through­out the week­end so they can be used as polling sta­tions. Yoga ses­sions, film screen­ings and pic­nics have been or­gan­ised at some of the 2,315 vot­ing fa­cil­i­ties which ref­er­en­dum sup­port­ers are try­ing to stop po­lice shut­ting down. The Cata­lan po­lice force is un­der or­ders to empty school build­ings to­day and of­fi­cers have been di­rected to re­frain from us­ing vi­o­lence to re­move par­ents and stu­dents. How the 17,000 re­gional of­fi­cers re­spond to the va­cate order is seen as key to the suc­cess or fail­ure of the planned vote.

On Fri­day, it emerged that Cat­alo­nia’s High Court had or­dered Google to delete an app that it said helped pro-in­de­pen­dence sup­port­ers spread in­for­ma­tion about to­day’s vote. The Court or­dered the tech com­pany to stop of­fer­ing an app that could be used to help peo­ple cast votes in the ref­er­en­dum. The au­thor­i­ties have also taken other ac­tion to ham­per the vote. En­ric Millo, the high­est-rank­ing Spanish cen­tral govern­ment of­fi­cial in the re­gion, said Civil Guard agents had searched the head­quar­ters of CTTI, the Cata­lan re­gional cen­tre in charge of tech­nol­ogy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

He said the agents dis­abled soft­ware de­signed to con­nect more than 2,300 polling sta­tions and to share re­sults, as well as ap­pli­ca­tions for vot­ing on­line.

Mean­while, to­day’s ref­er­en­dum vote con­tin­ued to pit Spain’s most se­nior politi­cians against the re­gion’s elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Al­fonso Dastis, Spain’s for­eign min­is­ter, de­scribed the Cata­lan re­gional govern­ment’s plan to hold an in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum as a mock­ery of democ­racy. He said yes­ter­day: “What they are push­ing is not democ­racy. It is a mock­ery of democ­racy, a trav­esty of democ­racy.” He ac­cused the Cata­lan govern­ment of try­ing to pro­mote an ex­clu­sion­ary sys­tem which runs counter to the goals and ideals the Euro­pean Union is try­ing to ad­vance.

He said voter ref­er­en­dums can­not be equated with democ­racy and as­serted that they are ac­tu­ally the “in­stru­ment of choice of dic­ta­tors”. Cat­alo­nia’s vice-pres­i­dent Oriol Jun­queras said mil­lions are ex­pected to take part in the poll de­spite the crack­down from Madrid. Jun­queras said Cata­lan cit­i­zens will be able to vote “even if some­body takes vot­ing sta­tions by as­sault and tries to avoid some­thing as nat­u­ral as plac­ing a vot­ing slip in a bal­lot box”.

He also claimed that an in­ter­nal poll showed more than 60 per cent of the 5.3 mil­lion el­i­gi­ble vot­ers plan to cast bal­lots.

While opin­ion polls have in­di­cated the vast ma­jor­ity of Cata­lans favour hold­ing a ref­er­en­dum, they are al­most evenly split over in­de­pen­dence it­self.

Cata­lan lead­ers, in­clud­ing re­gional pres­i­dent Car­les Puigde­mont, said that se­nior Euro­pean Union of­fi­cials should step in and bro­ker a political so­lu­tion to the stale­mate. But Euro­pean Com­mis­sion vice-pres­i­dent Frans Tim­mer­mans ap­peared to scotch that idea, say­ing that the con­sti­tu­tion must be re­spected.

What they are push­ing is not democ­racy. It is a mock­ery of democ­racy, a trav­esty of democ­racy

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