A militarized Spanish police force descended upon the streets of Barcelona, Catolonia’s capital, on Sunday in an attempt to forcefully prevent people from voting in the region’s independence referendum.
Spain’s highest court previously declared the vote illegal, a decision that precipitated a government crackdown on voters and polling stations across Catalonia — a region in the northeast of Spain that borders France. By early evening, when voting was close to ending, the Catalan health ministry reported that 465 people were injured in clashes with police.
The Spanish government’s chilling effort to suppress Catalonia’s vote for independence was mildly successful. According to The Guardian, authorities closed 336 of 2,000 voting stations across the region.
In an appalling display of force, riot police attacked uniformed Catalan firefighters, who had arrived at a polling station to protect voters and ballots. Elsewhere across the region, police fired rubber bullets into crowds and bloodied voters with batons.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont decried the government’s violent effort to squash what was, by all accounts, a peaceful vote. “The unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible violence of the Spanish state today has not only failed to stop Catalans’ desire to vote, but has helped to clarify all the doubts we had to resolve today,” said Puigdemont.
While a majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people wanted the freedom to vote in an independence referendum, voters were narrowly undecided on the question of secession. When voters were surveyed two months ago, 49% were against independence and 41% were in favor. However, as Puigdemont indicated, Sunday’s shocking violence might prove to be a persuasive catalyst for voters who were previously opposed to independence.
In the event Catalans vote “yes” to secede from Spain and form a republic, it’s unclear how Catalan leaders will proceed. If Catalonia declares independence, Spain’s central government in Madrid could seize control of the region, relying on an obscure decree in the country’s constitution. Catalan leaders could also call for another vote, delaying any formal proclamation of independence until voters overwhelmingly support secession. However Catalan leaders respond to the vote, Madrid is unlikely to accept their declaration of independence without a fight.
Update, 8:00 PM: Catalonia’s health ministry raised the number of people injured on Sunday to 761 shortly after polling stations closed. While Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to acknowledge that a referendum took place, Catalan secessionists declared a victory with 90% of voters choosing to establish an independent state.