Catalonia’s highly contentious vote to become its own nation spiraled into chaos on Sunday, as the central Spanish government employed violent tactics to suppress the referendum and clear voters from polling places.
Riot police confronted thousands of Catalans on the streets of Barcelona, the region’s capital, and scenes of police firing rubber bullets and beating and strong-arming protesters spread across the internet.
The Catalan health ministry said that more than 844 people had been injured in the region, hundreds in Barcelona. Two people were seriously injured.
The Spanish government had deployed hundreds of officers to the region ahead of the vote and warned citizens of its illegality. But tens of thousands of people turned out anyway, often singing and chanting as they assembled at polling places, even as security forces raided some voting locations, confiscating ballot boxes and dragging people out by their hair. Many citizens had camped out overnight to ensure that they would remain open — which most did. Voting ended at 8:00 p.m. Spanish time, and before the results were known, separatists urged the Catalan government to declare independence. Opinion polls before the vote showed that slightly less than half of the population favored the measure.
Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s leader, called the Spanish government’s actions “unjustified and irresponsible,” and said that “the image of the Spanish state has reached levels of shame that will stay with them forever.”
Former Catalan president Artur Mas told Spanish TV that Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, should “resign immediately” from his position, calling him an “authoritarian.”
In a television address, Rajoy denied that any independence referendum had taken place, and said that Spain had shown itself to be “a mature, advanced, friendly and tolerant democracy — but also a firm and determined one.” He also maintained that the country had set an example for the rest of the world — though many would argue not in the way he intended. And he said he hoped separatist leaders would now give up on their aspirations, a wish that seemed diametrically opposed to what is likely to happen next.
Earlier, the Spanish deputy prime minister had said that Spanish police intervened with “firmness and proportionality.”
International condemnations of Spain’s heavy-handed tactics came from Scotland’s prime minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who has recent experience with independence votes. U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn also denounced the violence, along with other European leaders — though most of the European Union responded mildly or not at all. The referendum had not been supported by the bloc, which is already on shaky ground after the United Kingdom voted to leave last year.
The situation in Barcelona was so unstable that Barca, its famous soccer team, played a game to a crowd of zero after its stadium was closed to the public. The team’s players came out wearing Catalan flag uniforms before switching to their regular jerseys.
Catalonia, a prosperous region of northeast Spain with a population of about 7.5 million, has flirted with independence for hundreds of years. The latest wave of nationalist fervor is tied to Spain’s catastrophic economic downturn after the global recession in 2008. But the independence push has evolved into an existential struggle that has outlasted the country’s economic struggles.