Catalonia, Spain map out their next moves after chaotic vote for independence

  • Spanish Civil Guard officers confront Catalan voters as they raise their hands in defiance outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain, on Sunday. Angel Navarrette / Bloomberg

Washington Post
Tuesday, October 03, 2017

“Now what?”
   This is what people on the streets here were asking after more than 2 million Catalans voted overwhelmingly Sunday in a chaotic, violent referendum to declare independence from Spain.

The mood was not jubilation. It was anxiety.

On Monday, secessionist leaders prepared to present the results to Catalonia’s regional parliament, which has vowed to move forward with the creation of an independent republic.

But nervous European leaders, who watched the chaos and violence explode on Sunday, warned the region in northeastern Spain to pause.

The European Union saw the referendum as a violation of the Spanish constitution and privately worried about other secessionist movements in Europe.

The lopsided vote Sunday is sure to be vigorously challenged in the Spanish courts, which have already declared the vote illegal. The central government in Madrid has described the referendum and its results as illegitimate.

There was no sign of contrition from Madrid on Monday that its National Police and Guardia Civil militia had gone too far in trying to stop the vote, despite scenes of officers clad in riot gear firing rubber bullets, whipping citizens at polling stations with rubber batons and dragging some, including women, away by their hair.

Just the opposite. Spanish authorities generally commended the police. The Spanish interior minister conceded that some of the violence looked “unpleasant,” but the response by riot police was “proportionate,” he said.

According to the Catalan government, which announced the results early Monday, 90 percent of the ballots cast were for independence – with 2,020,144 people voting yes and 176,566 no.

Turnout was low – just 42 percent. More than 2.2 million people were reported to have cast ballots, Catalan authorities said, out of 5.3 million registered voters.

Many people in Catalonia who opposed independence said they would not vote in the referendum, which they denounced as a sham.

Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catalá warned Monday that any declaration of independence could cause the central government to invoke Article 155 of the country’s constitution, which allows Madrid to intervene in the running of an autonomous region.

“If somebody tries to declare the independence of part of the territory – something that cannot be done – we will have to do everything possible to apply the law,” Catalá said.

Catalonia, which has its own language and culture, already enjoys broad autonomy, with its own parliament and police, as well as control over education, health care and media.

Carles Puigdemont, the regional president and a leading secessionist, said that Catalonia had won “the right to independence.”

He called on Europe to support its split from Spain and “not look the other way.”

But European leaders were keeping their distance.

In Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reiterated that Catalan autonomy “is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.”

Sunday’s vote “was not legal,” Juncker said Monday.

He suggested that any territory leaving Spain “would find itself outside of the European Union.”

Nothing about the vote was normal – or orderly, transparent or peaceful.

Images of police beating voters in stylish, cosmopolitan Barcelona stoked a widespread perception that something was wrong in the heart of Europe.

And it was far from clear that Catalonia is any closer to independence.

In a news conference Monday, the Catalan president appealed for support from Europe.

“This is not a domestic issue,” Puigdemont said. “The need for mediation is evident.”

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani of Italy said Monday that the body would hold an emergency debate Wednesday on “the rule of law and fundamental rights in Spain in light of the events in Catalonia.”

In a televised address late Sunday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said there was no real independence vote in Catalonia. He said a majority of the region’s residents did not even show up at the polls.

Rajoy met Monday with his party and opposition leaders to forge a united front.

European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted that he had spoken with Rajoy and that he shared his “constitutional arguments,” but he asked the Spanish prime minister “to avoid further escalation and use of force.”

The vote left the region and nation deeply divided.

In Barcelona, thousands took the streets in another huge demonstration Monday – this one not to support the vote or independence but to condemn the actions of the police in seeking to suppress the referendum.

The Catalan protesters marched in silence, many with pieces of tape over their mouths.

Meanwhile, from thousands of windows in Madrid, people flew Spanish flags in a spontaneous display of support for unity.

Many residents of the capital did not see a true referendum in Catalonia, but a public relations stunt, albeit a violent and disturbing one. They saw a vote that lacked even the basic elements of legitimacy.

“Independent of the fact that nobody liked the images we saw yesterday, it isn’t going to change the European Union’s position or that of any democratic country,” said Juan Carlos Martinez Lazaro, a professor at IE Business School in Madrid.

He called the Catalan referendum a kind of coup d’etat.

To demonstrate the plebiscite’s apparent loose controls, Spanish TV featured a report showing how an anti-independence activist was able to vote at four polling stations.

Puigdemont’s rushed assertion Sunday night that he would seek independence – before the results were even announced – was met with ridicule by some outside the region.

Another point repeated in the Madrid news media was that few voices in Catalonia publicly supported the “no” vote, allegedly because of bullying by independence backers who appropriated the public discourse.

In fact, the fragmentation of Catalan society and the “silent majority” are big themes in Madrid.

Spain’s Constitutional Court has ruled that the referendum was illegal, and it appeared certain that the plebiscite would again come before the judges.

The two sides could not even agree on facts.

Catalan officials said 319 of about 2,300 polling stations were shuttered by police. Spain’s Interior Ministry said 92 stations were closed.

In Barcelona, about 40 unions called for a general strike Tuesday to protest alleged brutality by the National Police.

But two of the largest unions announced, “We will not back positions that give coverage to a unilateral declaration of independence.”

Puigdemont announced that the regional government would establish a commission to probe Sunday’s violence.

The Barcelona City Council distributed an email address and asked witnesses to file photographs and videos of alleged assaults by National Police during the vote.