Catalonia’s defiant attempt to stage an independence referendum descended into chaos on Sunday, with hundreds of people injured in clashes with the Spanish police in one of the most serious tests of the country’s democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s.
National police officers dressed in riot gear deployed in large numbers as they fanned out across Catalonia, the restive northeastern region of Spain, to close polling stations and seize ballot boxes.
Over the course of the day, the referendum took on an almost surreal cast. The voting went ahead in many towns and cities, with men and women, young and old, singing, clapping and chanting as they lined up for hours to cast ballots, even as confrontations with the police turned violent elsewhere.
The police, sent by the central government in Madrid from other parts of Spain, used rubber bullets and truncheons in some places. The clashes quickly spoiled what had been a festive, if expectant, atmosphere through the night and into the early morning among voters, many of whom had camped out inside polling stations to ensure that they would remain open.
More than 460 people were injured in the crackdown and scuffling that ensued, according to Catalan officials, while a dozen Spanish police officers were wounded, according to Spain’s interior ministry.
The confrontations dangerously intensified the struggle over the status of Catalonia, where aspirations for independence in a prosperous region with a distinct language and culture have ebbed and flowed for generations.
The referendum on Sunday was a high-water mark in a long-building standoff between the national government and Catalonia, Spain’s economic powerhouse. Catalans have long complained that Madrid was unfairly siphoning off their wealth and denying people the right to choose their political destiny.
Though it was far from clear that Sunday’s vote would produce a reliable result, both sides quickly claimed victory — and victimization.
Spanish authorities accused the separatist government of irresponsibly encouraging voters to violate Spanish law and declared that the referendum had been successfully disrupted. The Catalan authorities maintained that balloting had proceeded in almost three-quarters of polling stations.
Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, accused the Spanish government of using “unjustified and irresponsible” means to stop Catalonia’s voters, “with truncheons against ballot boxes.”
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SOURCE: NY Times, Ellen Barry, Raphael Minder and Palko Karasz