After violent police response to referendum, ‘Catalonia’s break from Spain is now a fact’

Madrid's decision to use force to thwart the latest independence vote in Catalonia is looking like a disaster for the country's peaceful cohesion.

A Spanish riot police swings a club against would-be voters near a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)
A Spanish riot police swings a club against would-be voters near a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)

Hundreds were injured Sunday across Catalonia when national police forces used rubber bullets and truncheons to prevent citizens from voting in a referendum on the northeastern region’s potential secession from Spain’s uneasy political union.

The independence vote was the latest in a string of modern ballot measures seeking Catalan sovereignty beyond that allowed under the Spanish constitution’s system of autonomous states.

The most recent prior vote, in 2014, was also deemed illegal by the courts but allowed to proceed. Its results were not binding, low turnout signaled that those Catalan voters who oppose secession had stayed home in protest, and the politicians who organized the vote were banned for life from holding public office. There is evidence to suggest that allowing the vote furnished a sort of steam valve for the simmering resentments of Catalan separatists, and that separatist energy ebbed in its wake.

But there would be no such détente in this year’s edition, thanks to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the ruling conservatives of his Partido Popular (PP). Rajoy’s central government in Madrid opted to send in the guns instead. Police forces loyal to Madrid arrested scores of political employees in a series of office raids prior to the scheduled vote, then filled the streets of Catalonia on Sunday to shutter polling places and confiscate ballot records.


Rajoy’s policy of confrontation ensured violence. Police fired rubber bullets into crowds and charged through human blockades with clubs and riot shields, as Catalan officials sought to hide voting rolls and records from the armed men. Reports indicate 893 civilians eventually needed medical attention following the day of clashes. A further 400-plus members of various police forces were treated for minor and major injuries, according to El Pais.

Like other regions of Spain with long, distinct national histories apart from the country’s formal modern narrative, Catalonia has won a variety of concessions to its cultural independence down the decades. In part because of its legacy as the last redoubt of the forces of democracy who were defeated in the civil war that installed Francisco Franco as dictator, Barcelona (the region’s capital) and its surrounding autonomous region have been granted greater deference from the central state than the Basque Country or Galicia, each of which is also home to significant separatist sentiment and nationalistic pride.

One of Catalonia’s most significant forms of special treatment is the structure of its security forces. Where the national Guardia Civil claims jurisdiction over every other part of the country, the Catalan people have been allowed their own standalone regional police force. Known as the Mossos d’Esquadra, they replace Guardia Civil functions across the relatively wealthy and linguistically distinct northeast corner of the country.

On Sunday, the Mossos were asked to block polling places and provide some of the muscle required to put Madrid’s anti-referendum policy into effect. Members of the regional police force had dreaded the vote for months, with reports back in July that many had talked about calling in sick or planning vacations to avoid pulling referendum-day duty.

Scenes from around the autonomous region made clear why some officers might have considered malingering. The Mossos found themselves standing between crowds of would-be voters and blocs of national police and Guardia Civil deployed by Madrid to thwart the referendum by force, often alongside local Catalan firefighters. In some cases, cameras captured Mossos weeping.


The agency’s officers union blamed their national counterparts for placing Mossos in an impossible position – and for causing injuries to citizens and Mossos alike. “Today you not only attacked some agents who were following orders, you attacked the meaning of the word ‘colleague,’” the union said in a statement.

The statement also disputed the narrative that Catalan police were complicit in a democratic convulsion deemed illegal by the central government. Mossos successfully closed more than 200 polling places without injuring anyone, the union claims, while Guardia Civil and National Police units only managed to seal 92 balloting stations despite their aggressive and violent tactics.

The divide within Spain’s security services underscores the sense that Sunday’s vote, unlike others in Catalunya in recent years, marks a breaking point. Weeks of coverage from within and without Spain ahead of the vote had anticipated the worst, with domestic figures describing Madrid and Barcelona as trains bound for a collision, and international commentators fearing that the two governments’ intractability set the stage for a new civil war.

It was unclear as of Monday morning just how many ballot records separatist officials had managed to conceal from the central authorities. But Carles Puigdemont, head of the Catalan regional government, suggested Monday that the result was sufficient basis for his government to declare independence in the coming days despite the violence and chaos that marred the referendum.

But whatever result or tally Puigdemont might declare after the unconfiscated ballots are counted, the larger story is the political straits into which he and Rajoy have plunged Spain through their game of political chicken.

To even create a situation where Spaniards and Catalans are watching street conflict that can be accurately described as placing one group of armed men loyal to Madrid at odds with another group of people loyal to Barcelona evokes frightful history. Eighty years ago today, the tide of the Spanish Civil War was turning permanently in favor of the fascist military forces that had deposed the country’s elected leaders the year prior. In the more than three decades since Francisco Franco died and Spain returned to federal democracy with autonomous regional governments, Spaniards have argued about their national legacy endlessly – but almost always peaceably.


Over the past months and weeks, as Rajoy and Puigdemont raced up to the brink of armed conflict, even veteran observers of Spain’s typically fractious approach to nationalism and democracy had sounded unusually keen alarms. James Badcock, one of the longer tenured English-language correspondents in Spain, warned in Foreign Policy that the country is “flirting with another Civil War,” for example, and predicted that Rajoy’s policy would not only fail to prevent some form of vote but ensure that Catalan separatism gains ground with the public.

The worst of those fears seem confirmed Monday. With almost 900 people reportedly needing medical attention from the street clashes around the region Sunday, and Catalonia’s regional government leaders suggesting the vote gives them grounding to declare independence from Spain despite the incomplete access of voters to the polls, one venerable figure from the national media described the state of affairs as a “consummated catastrophe.”

Iñaki Gabilondo, who offered that verdict Monday morning, brings a unique credibility to questions of Spanish national cohesion or disintegration. Gabilondo served as a journalist for two decades before the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco. His first night on camera as a national news anchor came on February 23, 1981, the evening that an army colonel loyal to the dead dictator marched his unit into the national legislature and attempted a coup d’etat to prevent Spain from transitioning into democracy after more than four decades of dictatorship.

Saying he was surprised to see people talking about the problems with the Catalan referendum in the past tense, as though “the problems and the disobedience would simply be defeated [when] nothing could be further from the truth,” Gabilondo said “Catalonia’s break from Spain is now a fact” and that “the thing we feared might happen has arrived.” Calling it the “greatest catastrophe in the history of democracy in Spain,” Gabilondo predicted Sunday’s events would lead to new elections – and to a backlash that would accelerate the fracture of a unitary Spain as we know it.

Videos and photos of the brutality employed in Catalan streets on behalf of Rajoy’s policy have already sparked solidarity marches in other regions with a history of antagonism toward the central state. Unions announced plans for mass protests in the northern autonomias of Euskadi (a province of the Basque Country) and Navarra. Opposition to Catalan sovereignty has also retrenched, with some unionist hardliners now calling on Rajoy to invoke the constitutional provision that allows Madrid to forcibly bring an autonomous region to heel so long as a simple majority of parliament approves.

The brinksmanship and bloodshed in Spain reflect a broader cynicism toward longstanding political unions all across Europe. Scotland’s flirtations with quitting the United Kingdom, whose own decision to quit the European Union helped put the continent’s fraying political fabric in the international spotlight last summer, have been downright polite by comparison to what’s going on this fall in Spain.