On Sunday, October 1, 2017, disagreements over the Catalan independence referendum resulted in clashes that caused hundreds of injuries in Catalonia, the northeast region of Spain. Police from the national Spanish government in Madrid arrived in the region to prevent the official vote on Catalan independence from occurring, inciting violence during what was planned to be a peaceful vote. This disturbing violence has only increased tensions between Catalonia and the central government in Madrid.
The Catalan government has confirmed that at least 337 injuries resulted from the national police’s presence in Catalonia. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont condemned the “indiscriminate violence” against voters peacefully exercising their rights and stated, “The unjustified use of violence… by the Spanish state will not stop the will of the Catalan people.”
The controversy surrounding whether Spain should be one unified, centralized state or a division of autonomous regions is historical and complex, mainly persisted since Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime. After Franco’s downfall, there was a window of opportunity for democracy, but there was also strong apprehension because the previous republic led to Franco’s dictatorship. The transition was far from efficient; the unique system of Spain as a multinational state with a history of repression exacerbated the divide between those who wanted a unified Spain and those who sought regional autonomy. With the passing of the official Constitution in 1978 and the declaration of Spain as a “State of Autonomies,” neither side was appeased, and the ideological differences continue today.
Catalonia is one of the wealthiest and most self-sufficient regional autonomies in Spain; it has its own regional government which wields significant power over issues like education and healthcare. Catalan nationalists argue that their region has maintained a unique history, culture, and even language – the official language of Catalonia is Catalan, not Spanish. Therefore, many Catalan citizens consider themselves separate from a centralized Spain and desire independence. Furthermore, Catalonia pays taxes to the national government in Madrid and CNN reports that “pro-independence politicians argue that complex mechanisms for redistributing tax revenue are unfair on wealthier areas and result in Catalonian revenues subsidizing other parts of Spain.”
For these reasons, among others, Catalonia issued this referendum consisting of a single yes-or-no question: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state, in the form of a Republic?”
On the other side, those in favour of a unified Spain possess strong national pride and believe that Spain should be one country run by the national government in Madrid. Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría called the referendum “unconstitutional” and Catalonia’s behaviour “irresponsible.” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy argues that holding this referendum undermines the rule of law in Spain, potentially setting a critical precedent.
According to BBC News, the central government sent national police officers and Guardia Civil (paramilitary national law enforcement) to stop the referendum and prevent citizens from casting votes. They attempted to stop people from voting by “seizing ballot papers and boxes at polling stations” and, in Barcelona, using rubber bullets and batons against Catalans who were pushing for the referendum. CNN also reports that in the days preceding the vote, Spanish authorities seized voter lists and campaign material and arrested Catalan officials who were involved in organizing the referendum.
In Girona, where President Puigdemont planned to vote, video footage shows police smashing the glass entrance to the polling centre and forcibly removing voters. Regional government spokesperson Jordi Turull said that Madrid’s actions reflect “a state violence unknown to Spain since the age of Franco.” The referendum endured and most citizens, including President Puigdemont, were still able to cast their votes.
Whether or not one supports Catalan independence, the national government’s use of violence against the citizens of Catalonia is unacceptable. The right to vote and express opinions are basic democratic principles; as the national government tries to infringe on this right, especially with violence, they threaten the very essence of democracy. This referendum is only the first step on the path towards independence – Catalonia simply wants to gauge public opinion about potentially becoming an independent republic. Its citizens should have the ability to exercise their right to vote without fear of police brutality or any other infringement on their freedoms.
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