Catalan independence referendum reeling after arrests, but local officials vow to press on

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 September, 2017, 2:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 September, 2017, 7:22pm

Catalonia’s regional government has admitted that plans for an independence referendum deemed illegal by federal authorities had been dealt a major blow by a police crackdown, but vowed to press ahead, urging support from the international community.

In Barcelona, several thousand protesters flooded the streets for a second day running after police detained key members of the team organising the October 1 vote in the wealthy northeastern region which is deeply divided over independence.

The protesters gathered outside the High Court demanding that the leaders be freed, while a Catalan government spokesman said eight of the 14 people arrested had been released.

Spanish police raid Catalan government offices to block independence vote

The arrests, as well as Wednesday’s seizure of nearly 10 million ballots destined for the vote, have seriously damaged separatist plans to conduct a referendum with a semblance of legitimacy, even if it was never going to be recognised by Madrid.

Regional vice-president Oriol Junqueras, whose deputy Josep Maria Jove was among those held, told Catalonia’s TV3 that the crackdown meant “the rules of the game have been changed.”

“The circumstances today are different because a significant part of our team, half of the economics team, has been arrested,” he said.

“That (the referendum) cannot be held in the circumstances that we wanted is obvious,” he said.

Catalonia’s president Carles Puigdemont issued a statement late Thursday saying the referendum would be held “because we had prepared some plans to protect ourselves from any eventuality and guarantee the vote”.

Catalonia on collision course with Madrid over independence vote

He added “there is the support a huge majority of the population which is fed up with the arrogance and the abuse of the government of the Popular Party” in Madrid.

Puigdemont also tweeted a link to a page where he said Catalans could find their polling stations - althoughit could not be get accessed when some tried to consult the site.

In an open letter published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Puigdemont called on the international community “to stand with Catalonia in its defence of democracy and true European values”.

His words earned him the support of Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party who raised concerns about the crackdown, saying the right to self-determination should be respected everywhere.

But the road ahead is complicated.

Police have seized over 45,000 notifications destined for those selected to staff the polling stations.

And they have threatened to arrest mayors who facilitate the vote if they do not comply with a criminal probe. Officials have also tightened control over the region’s finances.

And Spain’s interior ministry has chartered three ferries which can house up to 6,600 police who are being sent to back up forces in Catalonia.

The confiscation of millions of ballot papers delivered an added blow.

Also contributing to their woes, the Constitutional Court said Thursday it would impose a daily fine of between 6,000-12,000 euros ($7,100-$14,300) on 24 organisers until they acted in full compliance with an earlier ruling ordering a “suspension of the referendum”.

“Madrid’s legal response to the Catalan challenge looks increasingly likely to stop the organisation of the self-determination vote, or at least void it of any legitimacy,” wrote Antonio Barroso, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence.

But Inigo Mendez de Vigo, spokesman for the Madrid government, defended the measures, telling Spanish radio: “It would be strange if the justice system did nothing when there was disobedience.”

Polls show Catalans are sharply divided on whether they want independence or not, with the latest survey in July showing 49.4 per cent against and 41.1 per cent in favour.

But Madrid’s repeated insistence on the illegal nature of the independence drive has generated much resentment in a region where separatists were once far fewer.

Juan Jose Moya, a 63-year-old caretaker who is against independence said that “both governments have bad policies,” referring to the administration in Madrid and the one in Barcelona.

But he was not impressed by the arrests.

“It’s not constructive,” he said.