CATALONIA VOTES IN SHADOW OF FRANCO
Catalonian voters go to the polls today in the independence referendum amid a draconian crackdown by the Spanish authorities. Paul Hutcheon reports
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