Barcelona Spain is facing a political and constitutional crisis after Catalans voted in favor of independence in a contested referendum that descended into chaos when police launched a widespread and violent crackdown.
The Catalan government said it had earned the right to independence from Spain after results showed 90% of those who voted were in favor of a split.
But amid an unexpectedly harsh response from Spanish police to the vote, turnout was only around 42%.
The Catalan health ministry said 893 people were injured in clashes as riot police raided polling stations, dragged away voters and fired rubber bullets.
The European Union backed the embattled Spanish government Monday, which insists the result is invalid as the referendum was ruled illegal by Spain’s top court.
Trade unions in Catalonia called a strike and a mass demonstration for Tuesday, an action likely to test public support for the Catalan government in the aftermath of Sunday’s chaos. The Catalan government called for the Guardia Civil, the militarized national law enforcement agency, to leave the province.
‘Long live Catalonia’
Several thousand people gathered outside Barcelona’s town hall Tuesday morning where the executive of the autonomous Catalan government was meeting to discuss its next move.
People shouted “Long live free Catalonia, we are peaceful people and we only want to vote.”
Supporters of independence gather outside the town hall in Barcelona on Monday.
It was unclear whether the Catalan government would use the result to declare independence from Spain — a move that would further deepen the crisis. On Sunday night, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont stopped short of announcing a split.
“Today, on this day of hope and also suffering, citizens of Catalonia have won the right to have an independent state,” he said.
The Catalan government blamed Madrid for a heavy-handed police operation and called on the European Union to respond.
“Today Europe has to choose, shame or dignity. Violence or democracy, this is our demand,” the Catalan Minister of Foreign Affairs Raül Romeva said.
But the EU backed Madrid. The European Commission, the European Unions’s executive body, said the vote was illegal. “We call on all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue. Violence can never be an instrument in politics,” the commission said in a statement posted on Twitter.
It said it trusted the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy “to manage difficult process” in respect of the Spanish constitution.
Rajoy said that the vote was illegitimate. “At this point, I can tell you very clearly: Today a self-determination referendum in Catalonia didn’t happen,” he said in a televised speech Sunday night.
Majority votes for split
Of 2.2 million ballots counted, about 90% were in favor of independence, Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull told a news conference shortly after midnight. Turnout was about 42% of the 5.3 million eligible voters, authorities said later Monday.
Turull said more people would have voted had it not been for the Spanish police suppression. Up to 770,000 votes were lost as a result of the crackdowns at polling stations, the Catalan government estimated.
“It has been a long day, a day of emotions, a hard day, of material damages and personal injuries,” government spokesperson Jordi Turull said Spain’s national government in Madrid has ardently resisted separation. In the runup to the vote, national authorities seized ballot papers, voter lists and campaign material. Thousands of extra national police were sent to the region and high-ranking Catalan officials involved in organizing the referendum were arrested.
Regional officials said 400 polling stations were closed as a result of the police crackdown. The Spanish Interior Ministry said 92 of about 2,300 polling stations were closed.
Pablo Guillen Alvarez, an economist and associate professor at the University of Sydney, told CNN that the violent scenes could lead to more support for Catalan independence.
While sympathy in the press and on social media lies with the Catalans, hard-right supporters of the Spanish government put Madrid under a lot of pressure to show strength, he said.
“The Catalan question has been boiling for 150-200 years. It’s a no-go, red line for the Spanish right.
“(The government) reacted in only way that they could have.”