Catalonia, Spain map out their next moves after chaotic vote for independence

The Washington Post

Hours after 2 million citizens in the Catalonia region voted overwhelmingly in a controversial, chaotic referendum to declare independence from Spain, the secessionist leaders here planned an emergency meeting to map out their next steps for establishing a new nation.

The lopsided vote on Sunday is sure to be vigorously challenged. Before the vote, Spanish courts and the central government in Madrid had declared the referendum illegitimate and illegal.

According to the Catalan government, which announced the results early Monday, 90 percent of the ballots cast were for independence - with 2,020,144 people voting yes and 176,566 no.

Turnout was low - just 42 percent. More than 2.2 million people were reported to have cast ballots, Catalan authorities said, out of 5.3 million registered voters.

Many people in Catalonia who opposed independence said they would not vote in the referendum, which they denounced as a sham.

Yet on Sunday night, just minutes after the first few thousand votes from a handful of towns were posted, Carles Puigdemont, the regional president and a leading secessionist, appeared on stage to announce that Catalonia had won "the right to independence." He called on Europe to support its split from Spain.

But nothing about the vote was normal - or orderly, transparent or peaceful. Images of police beating voters in stylish, cosmopolitan Barcelona fueled a widespread perception that Europe, in particular, and the West, in general, face more tensions and dislocation.

And it is far from clear that Catalonia is any closer to independence.

Puigdemont promised that he would present results to the Catalan parliament, which has previously said it would seek independence if the vote supported it.

In a television address late Sunday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said there was no real independence vote in Catalonia. He said a majority of the region's residents did not even show up at the polls.

On Monday, Rajoy said he would meet with the leaders of his party and others to plan a path forward.

In Brussels, the European Commission's chief spokesman said Monday that the Catalan plebiscite was "not legal" under the Spanish constitution, but he pressed the sides to talk and avoid violence.

The vote left the region and nation deeply divided.

From thousands of windows in Madrid, people flew Spanish flags in a spontaneous display of support for unity.

Many residents of the capital did not see a true referendum in Catalonia, but a public relations stunt, albeit a violent and disturbing one. They saw a vote that lacked even the basic elements of legitimacy.

Spanish TV featured a report showing how an anti-independence activist was able to vote at four polling stations to demonstrate the apparent loose controls.

Puigdemont's rushed assertion that he would seek independence - before the results were announced - was met with ridicule.

Another point repeated in the Madrid news media is that few voices in Catalonia publicly supported the "no" vote, allegedly because of bullying by independence backers who appropriated the public discourse.

In fact, the fragmentation of Catalan society and the "silent majority" are big themes in Madrid.

Spain's Constitutional Court has ruled that the referendum was illegal, and it appeared certain that the plebiscite would again come before the judges.

The two sides could not even agree on facts. Catalan officials said 319 of about 2,300 polling stations were shuttered by police. Spain's Interior Ministry said 92 stations were closed.

In Barcelona, trade unions and political parties called for a general strike Tuesday to protest alleged police brutality.

Over the weekend, boisterous activist-voters had brought their children into schools to defend the polling stations deemed illegal by the central government and the courts in Madrid.

Soon after the polls opened, Spanish riot police smashed into the voting centers, their raids caught on mobile phone cameras that showed them whipping citizens with rubber truncheons and dragging them away by their hair.

The plebiscite produced anxiety and shock across Europe - where many condemned the violence by the police but also worried that Catalan secessionists were violating the Spanish constitution.

The secessionists said Spain's heavy-handed attempt to stop the referendum stirred memories of the county's dark decades of dictatorship.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau called the day's violence between police and citizens "a rupture" in society.

Jordi Turull, the spokesman for the Catalonia regional government, described Spain's use of police to suppress the vote as "the shame of Europe."

But many in Spain saw a manipulative propaganda play by secessionists to stage a one-sided referendum designed to produce a "yes" vote no matter what.

"This was a sad day," said Ines Arrimadas, a member of a center-right party in Catalonia who opposed the vote. "It was crazy to hold this referendum."

She told Catalonia's public broadcaster, which is staunchly pro-secession, that "on this TV broadcast you will believe the result, but no one on the outside will."

Spain's foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, called the day's violence "unpleasant" but "proportional."

Yet the portrayal of the events could not have been worse for the central government. Although Madrid may have had the Spanish constitution on its side, the images being blasted around the world showed peaceful citizens being dragged away from the ballot boxes by helmeted police dressed all in black.

The vote in Catalonia was a mass act of civil disobedience, organized by the regional government but propelled by WhatsApp groups, encrypted messages and clandestine committees.

There were stirring moments of people power - and the activists who organized the vote were often two steps ahead of Madrid.

As the police forced their way through shouting crowds into the schoolhouses that served as polling stations, the organizers spirited away the ballots and hid them in the classrooms amid coloring books and crayons.

An hour after police drove away from one school in their big black vans, under a hail of insults, the ballot boxes reemerged and the voting recommenced.

The pattern was repeated again and again across hundreds of polling stations Sunday.

By late afternoon, the Catalan Health Ministry said 900 people had suffered minor injuries in brawls with police, who could be seen punching some demonstrators. The officers also fired scores of rubber bullets at crowds in Barcelona and other cities. Officials in Madrid said 33 police officers were injured.

The past two weeks have been marked by mass demonstrations and a high-risk game of cat-and-mouse, as the secessionists sought to carry out a vote that Madrid vowed it would stop.

As the central government shut down websites promoting the referendum, new apps popped up to guide voters.

In the former textile town of Sabadell, the fifth-largest city in Catalonia, hundreds of volunteers spent the night in the schools used as polling stations, strumming guitars and singing folk songs. As they awoke in sleeping bags sprawled in the hallways, their neighbors were sneaking the ballot boxes into auditoriums.

Francesc Codina had spent the past three weeks hiding the boxes in a dusky wine cellar in the heart of the city. Later, the plastic tubs, with the seal of the Catalan government, were ferried around town, stashed in black plastic.

"They were disguised as bags of trash," Codina said. "But this was democracy we carried in our hands."

Codina said informers and intelligence officers were searching everywhere for the ballots and boxes.

He shrugged. "But there's lots of hiding places."

At a high school for industrial training, Teresa Macia was volunteering as an observer for the vote. Asked whether she was afraid of violence or arrest, she answered: "No. And even if they scared me a little bit, it would be worth it."

Meanwhile, the Spanish soccer league game between Barcelona and Las Palmas at the Camp Nou stadium went ahead without any fans in attendance.

Just before the polls opened, the Catalan regional government declared that any registered voter could cast a ballot anywhere - instead of having to visit their assigned polling stations in their home towns. The voting lists, the regional government said, would be digital and not printed as usual for the polling officers to check against identification cards.

But there were problems right away with registering the voters - and the online system was balky. And this, among all the other irregularities, raised questions about the legitimacy of the vote.

Those who opposed the vote - especially the people who want to remain part of Spain - scoffed that the Catalans were being allowed to vote as many times as they wanted.

Spain's deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, said in a news conference that the "absolute irresponsibility of the Catalan government has had to be dealt with by the professionalism of the state's security forces. With firmness and proportionality, we have thrown into disarray the Catalan government's plans. There hasn't been a referendum nor the semblance of one. Nothing good will come of this."

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