Mark Nayler

Catalonia’s president refuses to back down after referendum violence

Catalonia's president refuses to back down after referendum violence
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The violence which marred Catalonia's independence referendum has dominated the coverage, but the region's president is confident about what the result means: Catalonia has won the 'right to an independent state in the form of a Republic,' he said last night. The outcome of the vote certainly seems convincing at first glance: 90 per cent of Catalans voted to split from Spain on a 42 per cent turnout. But Puigdemont’s many opponents say that the chaotic nature of yesterday’s voting renders the overall result meaningless. According to Catalan authorities, 319 of around 2,300 polling stations across Catalonia were closed by police. In the run-up to the vote, Rajoy’s government seized some 10 million ballot papers, prompting Puigdemont to tell Catalans that they could print off their own ballots at home and vote wherever they liked. Unsurprisingly, this has led some groups – such as the anti-secession organisation Societat Civil – to claim that some voters cast multiple ballot papers. 

It's not only the statistics from the vote being called into question, however. The more decisive objection to yesterday’s vote remains that it possesses no binding or legal force whatsoever. Weeks before it happened, Spain’s highest court ruled that the proposed referendum violated the Spanish constitution and was therefore illegal – a decision that has since been the foundation of Rajoy’s opposition to the vote. In fact, so determined is the Spanish prime minister to undermine the referendum’s legitimacy that he hasn’t even denounced its result as meaningless. He simply stated yesterday evening that 'there has not been a referendum on self-determination in Catalonia'. For many Spanish nationalists, yesterday’s vote was a chimera, an embarrassing piece of play-acting by deluded separatists.

Fully aware of the fact that he risks prison by pursuing secession, Puigdemont went ahead with yesterday’s referendum anyway – an act of defiance to which Rajoy responded by sending the troops in. As a result, TV viewers all over the world were presented with disturbing scenes on Sunday afternoon: riot police crashing into the polling station in which Puigdemont was due to vote and seizing ballot boxes (the president was forced to vote elsewhere); rubber bullets being fired into crowds by national police; and a woman being pulled out of a polling station by her hair.

In total, Catalan medical officials said 844 people suffered minor injuries, including 33 police officers. Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau denounced the heavy-handedness of the police, as did Jeremy Corbyn and the Belgian prime minister; but Rajoy said they had acted with 'firmness and serenity'. If yesterday’s unpleasant scenes were 'serene' for the Spanish prime minister, you can only wonder at his definition of 'chaos'.

Never has the irreconcilability of the two sides in this bitter debate been clearer. For Puigdemont, yesterday was a great day of 'hope and suffering' that has won his people the right – so long fought for – to split from an unwanted central government in Madrid. He has promised to take the result to the regional parliament within days to kick-start secession proceedings. Yet for the Spanish government, the referendum didn’t even happen: it is illegal, has no efficacy and its orchestrators are guilty of a criminal offence. Fourteen Catalan politicians have already been arrested and over 700 of the region’s mayors placed under investigation for their role in organising the vote. The chances of either side finding some middle ground - necessary for a reasonable discussion about what happens next – are slim, at least for the moment.