Thousands of Catalans gathered at designated polling stations on Sunday morning as they sought to defy Spanish authorities by voting in a banned independence referendum that has raised fears of unrest in the wealthy northeastern region.
The referendum, declared illegal by Spain's central government, has thrown the country into its worst constitutional crisis in decades, as as 38 people were injured in a police crackdown at polling stations, according to emergency services.
At Ramon Lull school in Barcelona, police shot rubber bullets at people waiting to enter the polling station, FRANCE 24 reporter in Barcelona Ségolène Allemandou observed.
Puigdemont accused Spanish authorities of using "unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible" violence in the crackdown.
The batons, rubber bullets and violence used by Spanish police to prevent voting had shown a "dreadful external image of Spain", he told reporters.
Meanwhile, Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, has called on the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, to resign and demanded police stop using violence against voters.
“Police action against the peaceful population must stop. Today, in Catalonia and in the state, we have to demand it. #ResignRajoy,” she tweeted.
"A shameful image of Spain that will rest in our memories" - Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont
This comes after police in riot gear burst into a polling station minutes before Catalan regional leader Carles Puigdemont was due to vote there
Police used axes to smash a window at the sports centre being used as a voting centre and forced open the door in the province of Girona.
Live TV pictures showed police with black berets and riot shields fanning out through the voting station, apparently searching for ballot boxes, while would-be voters, fists raised in the air, defiantly sang the Catalan anthem.
Nevertheless, Puigdemont was able to later cast his ballot in the town of Cornella del Terri.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont casts ballot in different town from where he was planned to vote
‘Destroying voting equipment’
“Spanish police are going around polling stations destroying voting equipment,” Allemandou noted.
That is while electoral volunteers say they are unable to access census data because the website that hosted it is down, while internet service has been cut in some of the stations.
Technicians are working to set up new domains for the website where electoral managers need to register polling data, said Jordi Sole, a 48-year-old historian who displayed an accreditation with the regional government's logo.
Guillem Castillo, an 18-year-old engineering student designated as an electoral official there, said technical problems halted the voting shortly after the Collaso high school opened.
Spanish media reported similar problems with internet in polling centers across Catalonia.
At some stations, voters blocked doors in anticipation of police trying to enter and take over the sites. At one, a Barcelona school, organisers asked people to use passive resistance if police intervened.
"I have got up early because my country needs me," said Eulalia Espinal, a 65-year-old pensioner who started queuing with around 100 others outside one polling station, a Barcelona school, in rain at about 5 a.m. (0300 GMT).
"We don't know what's going to happen but we have to be here," she said.
"If there is violence, it will only come from one direction" - Catalan refusing to move from polling station
'Yes' result likely, if some voting goes ahead
Organisers had asked voters to turn out hours before polling stations were supposed to open at 9 a.m., and called for "massive" crowds by 7.30 a.m., hoping for this to be the world's first image of voting day.
Leading up to the referendum, Spanish police arrested Catalan officials, seized campaigning leaflets, sealed off many of the 2,300 schools designated as polling stations and occupied the Catalan government's communications hub.
But Catalan leaders, backed by pro-independence supporters, have refused to abandon their plans. Families have occupied scores of schools earmarked as voting centres, sleeping overnight in an attempt to prevent police from sealing them off.
If some voting goes ahead, a "yes" result is likely, given that many unionists are not expected to turn out.
"If I can't vote, I want to turn out in the streets and say sincerely that we want to vote," said independence supporter Jose Miro, a 60-year-old schools inspector.
Only the Catalan police, or Mossos d'Esquadra, have so far been monitoring polling stations. They are held in affection by Catalans, especially after they hunted down Islamists accused of staging deadly attacks in the region in August.
"They have no right to do this. We are all Spaniards" - anti-Catalan independence demonstrator
Madrid's crackdown undermines vote
Pro-independence Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont originally said that if the "yes" vote won, the Catalan government would declare independence within 48 hours, but regional leaders have since acknowledged Madrid's crackdown has undermined the vote.
Markets have reacted cautiously but calmly to the situation so far, though credit rating agency S&P said on Friday that protracted tensions in Catalonia could hurt Spain's economic outlook. The region accounts for about a fifth of the economy.
The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court, and Madrid has the ultimate power under its 1978 charter to suspend the regional government's authority to rule if it declares independence.
The Madrid government, which has sent thousands of police to Catalonia to enforce a court ban on the vote, believes it has done enough to prevent any meaningful referendum taking place.
Farmers have used tractors to guard polling stations in 30 Catalan towns, according to Spanish media reports. They included one at a sports centre in Sant Julia de Ramis, near Girona, where Puigdemont was scheduled to vote later.
At other polling centres, activists carried away schools' iron gates to make it harder to seal them off.
A minority of around 40 percent of Catalans support independence, polls show, although a majority want to hold a referendum on the issue. The region of 7.5 million people has an economy larger than that of Portugal.
"A declaration of independence does not make you a country" - Rebecca Richards, Lecturer in International Affairs at Keele University in the UK.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP and AFP)
Date created : 2017-10-01