MADRID – Thousands of people supporting a contested referendum to split Catalonia from Spain took to Barcelona’s streets amid an intensifying government crackdown on the independence vote that included the arrests of a dozen regional officials Wednesday and the seizure of 10 million ballot papers.
The arrests – the first involving Catalan officials since the campaign to hold an independence vote began in earnest in 2011 – prompted the regional government and some of its supporters to say casting a ballot was as much about dignity as whether to break away from Spain.
Regional Catalan officials so far have vowed to ignore a Constitutional Court order to suspend the October 1 referendum while judges assess its legality.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned them of “greater harm” if they don’t drop the referendum bid, which he called a “totalitarian act.”
“Disobedience of the law by a part of the political power is the opposite of democracy, it means an imposition, an injustice, the violation of people’s rights and an attack to democracy,” Rajoy said in a televised appearance on Wednesday night.
“If you care about the tranquility of most Catalans, give up this escalation of radicalism and disobedience,” the conservative leader said, addressing Catalan officials directly.
Catalan nationalists argue that self-determination is an inalienable right that can’t be curbed by any constitution. The prime minister’s determination to prevent the ballot has backing from the main Spanish opposition parties.
Some members of Rajoy’s conservative government have even referred to the standoff as democratic Spain’s greatest political crisis since 1981, a failed coup attempt in the country’s parliament that came only three years after the official end of Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.
The Catalonia branch of Spain’s High Court said Wednesday that some 20 people were being investigated for alleged disobedience, abuse of power and embezzlement related to the referendum. Police acting on a judge’s orders searched 42 premises, including six regional government offices, officials’ private offices and homes, as well as three companies in Barcelona, the court said in a statement.
The arrests risked stoking public anger in Catalonia, where pro-independence passions can run high. Several thousand independence supporters gathered to angrily protest the raids outside government offices in Barcelona, which is Catalonia’s capital. Some demonstrators sat down in the street to block police cars, while a few scuffled with police officers.
Protests also occurred in other Catalan towns and in Spain’s capital, Madrid. There were no reports of arrests and one person was reported injured, according to the regional police.
At the demonstration outside the Catalan regional ministry of economy, protester Charo Rovira said she felt sad at the turn of events.
“Catalonia is practically in a state of siege,” she said. She added that the arrested politicians were merely acting according to the will of the people.
Catalonia represents a fifth of Spain’s 1.1-trillion-euro ($1.32 trillion) economy and enjoys wide self-government authority, although key areas such as infrastructure and taxes are in the hands of central authorities. The region’s 7.5 million inhabitants overwhelmingly favor holding a referendum, but are roughly evenly divided over independence.