Spanish national police moved to shut down a banned independence referendum in Catalonia on Sunday, confronting crowds of angry voters at some voting centers in a showdown that has raised fears of unrest across the wealthy northeastern region.
According to polls, a minority of around 40 percent of Catalans support independence, although the majority wants to hold a referendum on the issue.
The referendum, which was declared illegal by Spain’s central government, has caused the worst constitutional crisis in decades and raised fears of street violence as a test of will between Madrid and Barcelona plays out.
The Catalan government had scheduled voting to open at 9 a.m. (0700 GMT) at around 2,300 designated stations, but according to statements issued by Madrid, more than half of them were shut down. Despite that, voting started at some sites on Sunday after people occupied them with the intention to prevent police from shutting them down. Ballot boxes were smuggled in and the voters were urged to use passive resistance against the police forces.
As stated by the Catalan government, the voters can print out ballot papers at home and submit them at any open voting center, urging them to turn out in a peaceful expression of democracy. The organisers asked voters to vote before dawn, hoping for large crowds as the world’s first image.
Catalan leaders vowed to carry on with the referendum, despite attempts from Madrid to impede preparations with a variety of means, as in the days leading up to the referendum, Spanish police arrested Catalan officials, seized campaigning leaflets and occupied the Catalan government’s communications hub. Moreover, thousands of police were dispatched to Catalonia to enforce a court ban on the vote.
If some voting goes ahead, a “yes” result is likely, given that many unionists are not expected to turn out. However, no matter the result, the ballot will not be legally binding, as it has been blocked by Spain’s Constitutional Court, and Madrid has the ultimate power under its 1978 charter to suspend the regional government’s authority to rule if it declares independence.
Markets have reacted cautiously but calmly to the situation so far, though credit rating agency S&P said on Friday that protracted tensions in Catalonia could hurt Spain’s economic outlook. The region accounts for about a fifth of the economy.