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What is happening in Catalonia and why? Answers here

Catalonia referendum: Spanish police fire rubber projectiles at protesters outside Barcelona voting centre.

world Updated: Oct 01, 2017 18:14 IST
Two girls sit on the pavement after the arrival of Spanish police officers at a polling station in Barcelona, on October 1, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid.
Two girls sit on the pavement after the arrival of Spanish police officers at a polling station in Barcelona, on October 1, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid.(AFP Photo)

Spanish police in riot gear seized ballot boxes and surrounded activist-held polling stations in Catalonia today as thousands flooded the streets to vote in an independence referendum banned by Madrid.

Civil Guard officers, wearing helmets and carrying shields, used a hammer to break the glass of the front door and a lock cutter to break into the Sant Julia de Ramis sports centre near the city of Girona. At least one woman was injured outside the building and wheeled away on a stretcher by paramedics.

Spanish Guardia Civil guards brake the door of a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis, where Catalan president was supposed to vote. (AFP Photo)

Clashes broke out less than an hour after polls opened, and not long before Catalonia regional president Carles Puigdemont was expected to turn up to vote. Polling station workers inside the building reacted peacefully and broke out into songs and chants challenging the officers’ presence.

What is happening in Catalonia and why? We take a look:

Attempt for independence referendum

The Spanish government and its security forces are trying to prevent voting in the independence referendum, which is backed by Catalan regional authorities. Spanish officials had said force wouldn’t be used, but that voting wouldn’t be allowed.

The unfolding confrontation has rattled Spain’s political and constitutional framework.

The country’s Constitutional Court has suspended the vote and the Spanish central government says it’s illegal. Regional separatist leaders have pledged to hold it anyway, promising to declare independence if the “yes” side wins, and have called on 5.3 million eligible voters to cast ballots.

Spanish police officers seize ballot boxes in a polling station in Barcelona. (AFP Photo)

Police had sealed off many voting centres in the hours before the vote to prevent their use. Others were filled with activists determined to hold their ground.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont voted in Cornella de Terri, near the northern city of Girona, after police took over control of the original polling centre where he was due to appear, his spokesperson Joan Maria Pique told The Associated Press.

Puigdemont has spearheaded the separatist push to go ahead with the vote, despite fierce opposition by central authorities.

Spanish riot police forcefully removed a few hundred would-be voters from a polling station at a school in Barcelona.

Daniel Riano was inside when the police pushed aside a large group gathered outside busted in the Estela school’s front door.

The 54-year-old Riano said that “we were waiting inside to vote when the National Police used force to enter, they used a mace to break in the glass door and they took everything.”

He said that “one policeman put me in a headlock to drag me out, while I was holding my wife’s hand. It was incredible. They didn’t give any warning.”

Spanish police officers immobilise two people outside a polling station in Barcelona. (AFP Photo)

National Police and Civil Guard officers also showed up in other polling centres where Catalan officials were expected.

What is likely to be the result of the referendum?

A minority of around 40% of Catalans support independence, polls show, although a majority want to hold a referendum on the issue.

A “yes” result is likely in the referendum, given that most of those who support independence are expected to cast ballots while most of those against it are not.

Organisers had asked voters to turn out before dawn, hoping for large crowds to be the world’s first image of voting day.

“This is a great opportunity. I’ve waited 80 years for this,” said 92-year-old Ramon Jordana, a former taxi driver waiting to vote in Sant Pere de Torello, a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees and a pro-independence bastion.

Only the Catalan police, or Mossos d’Esquadra, had 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.

But national police, who have been drafted into Catalonia in their thousands from around Spain to prevent the vote, stepped in to grab ballot boxes and close stations on Sunday once it became clear the regional police was not clearing sites.

Pro-independence 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.

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.

No minimum turnout has been set for the validity of the vote by Catalan authorities. Regional government officials initially hoped for a turnout greater than the 2.3 million people who voted in a mock referendum in 2014 in which 80% favoured independence but have recently signalled that they would consider the vote valid with a lower number given the challenges to hold it.