Cat­alo­nia di­vided as con­tro­ver­sial poll on in­de­pen­dence sparks con­flict with Madrid

As ap­peals for di­a­logue make no progress, Madrid turns to threats of po­lice ac­tion and pros­e­cu­tions, Stephen Bur­gen re­ports. Above, Cata­lans give their views on the cri­sis

The Observer - - NEWS | WORLD -

In two weeks, Cata­lans will go to the polls to vote in a ref­er­en­dum on whether to se­cede from Spain and form an in­de­pen­dent repub­lic. Or will they?

Ever since Car­les Puigde­mont ’s gov­ern­ment called the ref­er­en­dum for 1 Oc­to­ber, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Madrid has been do­ing ev­ery­thing in its power to en­sure that it does not hap­pen. Madrid says the ref­er­en­dum is un­con­sti­tu­tional and so are the laws the Cata­lan par­lia­ment passed a week ago, which will in ef­fect dis­con­nect Cat­alo­nia from Span­ish leg­isla­tive and ad­min­is­tra­tive con­trol if the Yes vote pre­vails.

If the Cata­lan gov­ern­ment’s strat­egy has been to pro­voke a re­ac­tion from Madrid, it has suc­ceeded. While re­fus­ing to dis­cuss the is­sue, the Span­ish gov­ern­ment has lashed out with a se­ries of threats, in­clud­ing tak­ing con­trol of Cat­alo­nia’s fi­nances by to­mor­row and abol­ish­ing its re­gional au­ton­omy. It has threat­ened to bar Cata­lan lead­ers from hold­ing of­fice and even warned them that they could face jail. The at­tor­ney gen­eral has also said that any mayor who al­lows lo­cal author­ity build­ings to be used as polling sta­tions could face prose­cu­tion. Mean­while, may­ors who say they will not fa­cil­i­tate the ref­er­en­dum are be­ing pick­eted and sent hate mail by pro-se­ces­sion­ists.

Any­one print­ing or dis­tribut­ing bal­lot pa­pers or sup­ply­ing bal­lot boxes risks prose­cu­tion, and the gov­ern­ment has even threat­ened to cut off the elec­tric­ity to schools serv­ing as polling sta­tions. It has warned postal work­ers against han­dling elec­toral ma­te­rial. The Mos­sos d’Esquadra, the Cata­lan po­lice force who be­came lo­cal he­roes over their han­dling of the ter­ror­ist at­tacks last month, have been or­dered to in­ter­vene to pre­vent vot­ing tak­ing place.

Last Wed­nes­day the Civil Guard shut the of­fi­cial ref­er­en­dum web­site, but within 24 hours Puigde­mont had pub­lished a new link to the site on his Twit­ter ac­count. Wik­iLeaks’s Ju­lian As­sange says he has been help­ing to de­fend the web­site.

Crit­ics of the ref­er­en­dum, in­clud­ing Ada Co­lau, the mayor of Barcelona, say it lacks the nec­es­sary guar­an­tees and has set no min­i­mum level of par­tic­i­pa­tion. How­ever, she has reached an agree­ment with Puigde­mont to fa­cil­i­tate the vote in the cap­i­tal. Mean­while the Cata­lan gov­ern­ment has sent let­ters to 55,000 cit­i­zens call­ing on them to run the polling sta­tions. Un­der the Cata­lan ref­er­en­dum law they are obliged to take part, but the law has been ruled il­le­gal by Spain’s con­sti­tu­tional court. In a last-ditch ef­fort to break the dead­lock, Co­lau and Puigde­mont have sent a joint let­ter to the prime min­is­ter, Mar­i­ano Ra­joy, and the king plead­ing for di­a­logue and a legally bind­ing ref­er­en­dum. In the let­ter they ap­peal for an “open and un­con­di­tional di­a­logue”. Ra­joy in­sists that he is open to di­a­logue on any topic – ex­cept a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence. The Yes camp has suc­cess­fully cre­ated an im­age of con­sen­sus around in­de­pen­dence – wit­ness the mil­lion peo­ple they mo­bilised on the streets of Barcelona last week for Cat­alo­nia’s na­tional day – but these im­pres­sive shows of pop­u­lar power mask the fact that there is still only a mi­nor­ity in favour of se­ces­sion. A sur­vey at the end of July found that 49.4% of Cata­lans were against in­de­pen­dence and 41.1% sup­ported it.

When a sim­i­lar ref­er­en­dum was held in Novem­ber 2014, 80% voted Yes. How­ever, the turnout of barely 37% sug­gested that No vot­ers had boy­cotted the poll. There are fears this will be re­peated on 1 Oc­to­ber, but the Cata­lan gov­ern­ment seems bent on a dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence, how­ever small the mar­gin in favour.

Co­lau has ac­cused the Cata­lan gov­ern­ment of “ig­nor­ing half the Cata­lan pop­u­la­tion”. The day af­ter the na­tional day march , La Van­guardia , the voice of main­stream na­tion­al­ism and the busi­ness com­mu­nity, pub­lished an ed­i­to­rial that read: “An as­sault on the con­sti­tu­tion is not the way for­ward, even though it ap­peals to hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple … Half of Cat­alo­nia doesn’t sup­port the separatist cause … and many peo­ple have yet to re­cover from the stu­por of see­ing the meth­ods par­lia­ment used last week to pass the so-called dis­con­nec­tion laws.”

As yet, ap­peals for calm are be­ing ig­nored on both sides, but con­scious of Spain’s long his­tory of in­ter­nal strife and vi­o­lent con­flict many are hop­ing for some last-minute com­pro­mise that will avert a head-on col­li­sion.

Span­ish PM Mar­i­ano Ra­joy, right, and Car­les Puigde­mont, Cata­lan leader.

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