Catalans defiant as Spain 'annuls' referendum
The Spanish government claimed yesterday to have "annulled" Catalonia's banned independence referendum as it took final steps to block the breakaway vote in Spain's richest region.
In the latest show of force, police shut down electronic voting systems and sealed off hundreds of schools to prevent today's vote, which has put EU leaders on edge at a time when the bloc is trying to emphasise post-Brexit cohesion.
Catalan leaders remained defiant and promised the vote would go ahead despite officers from the national Guardia Civil using a court order to shut down 29 electronic applications that could be used for voting or to count the results.
Inigo Mendez de Vigo, the Spanish government spokesman hailed the move as another "blow to the organisation of the illegal referendum" in which over a million are still expected to take part today. Spanish authorities have sent thousands of its own police to the region, as the local Catalan force refuse to use force on voters.
Mr Vigo yesterday said the vote had effectively been "annulled", adding that referendum organisers also had no ballot papers or voting lists.
Madrid also suggested that a sit-in initiative at schools, intended to prevent police closing them ahead of today's poll, had largely failed.
Authorities said that of 1,300 Catalan schools visited by police, only 163 had been occupied and the rest successfully sealed off.
The Catalan government denounced the moves as repressive, and insisted they could still operate the vote. "Let's see if they sustain these claims," said Joan Maria Pique, a Catalan spokesman.
"We have everything that is needed in a referendum - especially the main thing: voters," he said. Outside the Catalan presidential palace, in front of a banner declaring "We will vote!"
Michael Guarin, 41, said there was nothing the Spanish government could do to prevent him casting his ballot for independence. Catalans would defy the police moves to come out in huge numbers, he insisted. If they could not vote at the schools, "then we will vote outside the schools".
But Mr Guarin confessed to feeling rattled by the presence of such a large security deployment, with thousands of Guardia Civil and National Police stationed on hulking cruise liners moored in Catalan ports.
The Catalans would vote peacefully, he insisted. But as for the forces dispatched by Madrid, he said: "I don't know what their intention is, with their rubber bullets, armoured cars and water cannons, I don't know what they will try to do."
While he would go to the polls come what may, "some of my family are not going to vote, because of fear", he said, adding: "A lot of people who want independence are not going to be able to go and vote, because they are afraid."
As Catalonia prepares for a day of voting fraught with tension, divisions invoked by this bitter battle over the referendum were on full display. As Mr Guarin spoke, hundreds of anti-independence protesters descended on the presidential palace, waving Spanish flags and shouting "Viva Espana".
Arguments quickly broke out between supporters and opponents of the poll, as the two sides swapped accusations of fascism and questions over Catalan identity. "Fascist? Do you even know what fascism means?" railed Pedro, a 27-year-old wrapped in a Spanish flag. "Fascism is what happened here the other day," he said, accusing the Catalan government of illegitimately forcing through its referendum law.
"I am Spanish and I am Catalan," Pedro, who did not wish to give his last name, explained. "My grandparents lived under Franco and this is offensive. We are all free here."
In Madrid, thousands chanted for "national unity" outside the city hall, one of dozens of protests for and against the vote across the country.
There, protesters had little sympathy for the Catalan cause. Jose, a retiree who preferred not to give his full name, said that he would "send the army into Catalonia tomorrow".
Amid uncertainty, one prominent leader of the movement appeared to be lowering expectations for the vote. Jordi Sanchez, leader of pro-independence group the Catalan National Assembly, suggested that one million votes would be considered an "abundant success" - a figure far lower than the 2.3 million who cast ballots in the consultation vote of 2014.
Back outside the presidential palace, Mr Guarin said: "Tomorrow we will come out on to the street, and we will vote. It is something we have to do."