Spanish police seal off 1,300 polling stations
October 01 2017 12:03 AM
People march in Barcelona yesterday in favour of a unified Spain.
People march in Barcelona yesterday in favour of a unified Spain.

DPA/AFP/Reuters/Barcelona

Catalan separatists have halved their expectations for voter turnout to 1mn in today’s referendum on giving the region independence from Madrid amid several moves by the central government to block the vote it has declared illegal.
Given Madrid’s disruptive activities, 1mn votes in favour of independence would be “an outstanding success”, Jordi Sanchez, president of the separatist Catalan National Assembly (ANC), told reporters in Barcelona yesterday.
Despite Madrid’s efforts to stop the vote, Catalan regional government chief Carles Puigdemont has insisted it will go ahead; more than 5.3mn people are eligible to vote, but opponents of independence have said they will not take part.
In a further effort to prevent the referendum, the central authorities in Madrid shut down the electronic vote-counting system in Catalonia yesterday.
By blocking the counting system, Madrid had effectively “cancelled” the referendum which it had already declared illegal, government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo told journalists.
Earlier in the day several officers from the Civil Guard state police, or Guardia Civil, raided the Catalan technology and communications centre where the software for the electronic counting system is held.
This “further strike against the illegal proclamation” of the referendum “was carried out within the scope of the law”, the spokesman said.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has stressed several times that the independence referendum would never take place.
Madrid has deployed all means at its disposal to prevent it: In recent days the central authorities have seized at least 12mn ballot papers, and millions of posters and leaflets; many websites have also been blocked.
More than 4,000 members of the Guardia Civil and the national police force have been sent to Catalonia, while security forces have sealed off hundreds of polling stations.
And as of afternoon yesterday the police had sealed over half of the 2,315 polling stations in the region.
Teachers, parents, students, and activists in this wealthy northeastern region have leapt into action to defend the vote, defying Madrid’s warnings of repercussions by occupying more than 160 schools designated as polling stations.
Enric Millo, the central government representative in Catalonia, told reporters that 1,300 polling stations had already been sealed off.
He said that 163 of those had already been occupied when they were sealed off, which meant those inside were allowed to leave but no one could go in.
AFP reporters, however, visited several schools occupied by parents, students and locals where people could go in and out freely, indicating that there may be more occupied buildings that have yet to be sealed off.
The stand-off between the central government and Catalan leaders over an independence referendum opposed by Madrid has morphed into one of the biggest crises to hit Spain since democracy was restored after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
As such, it has Spaniards the country over worried.
In Spain’s major cities, Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Santander, Alicante, Valencia, and Malaga, thousands protested for Spanish unity.
“We shouldn’t have got to this point. We’ve arrived at a point of no return,” said Fernando Cepeda, a 58-year-old engineer, a Spanish flag tied around his waist in front of Madrid’s city hall.
Catalan separatist leaders and organisers of “committees to protect the referendum” have stressed that everyone must remain peaceful.
In one incident, though, someone fired a pellet gun on Friday night at a group of people standing in front of an occupied high school in the Catalan town of Manlleu, lightly injuring three people, police said.
The referendum has sown divisions among Catalans themselves, with the region deeply split on independence, even if a large majority want to be allowed to settle the matter in a legal vote.
Those supporting the vote have mobilised.
On Friday, tractors paraded through Barcelona, some decked with the “Estelada”, the separatists’ flag of red-and-yellow stripes with a white star on a blue chevron.
They and firefighters have pledged to protect polling stations.
From district to district, people gathered to form “Committees to protect the referendum”, using the Telegram messaging app to get organised and urging everyone to remain peaceful, said an AFP correspondent who saw some of the messages.
Organisers urged voters to arrive at 5am (0300 GMT) at polling stations and to wait in line until the schools were opened.
Voters must show peaceful resistance to police action, organisers said.
“We must be sure there are lots of people present of all ages,” they said in instructions disseminated on social media.
Any volunteer staffing a voting station with use of a census would be liable for a fine of up to €300,000, the government source said.
Carles Riera, a lawmaker in the regional parliament for the radical CUP party, part of Catalonia’s separatist coalition, vowed that mobilisation would continue after today’s vote – if the “yes” camp won but Madrid opposed the result, as is almost certain.
“We’re in a process of popular mobilisation that is going to last a while,” he told reporters. “This democratic wave, this level of auto-organisation will have to keep going for a long time to defend the republic.”
On Friday, Spain’s education ministry said in a statement that head teachers in Catalonia “were not exempt from liability” if they co-operated and allowed their schools to remain open for the vote.
Some schools have imagined innovative ways to circumvent an order that public spaces cannot be used for the referendum by organising leisure activities all over the weekend, from pyjama parties for the kids to volleyball games.
Barcelona’s Joan Brossa high school, for instance, advertised a series of activities for Friday and Saturday, including film screenings, football matches and Zumba dance fitness classes.
It remained unclear though how people would be able to enter sealed-off schools today to vote, even if they are occupied.
Parents in some of the occupied schools said that police officers had told them they could stay as long as they were not doing anything connected with the referendum.
“The police have been here four times,” said Laia, a 41-year-old sociologist at a school in central Barcelona where around 100 children were playing and 80 people were planning to stay the night while neighbours brought food.
“They read us out the part of the court order that says no activities related to the preparation of the banned referendum are allowed.”
The Mossos d’Esquadra Catalan police have warned about the risk of “disruption of public order” if efforts are made to prevent people from casting ballots. Their chief on Friday urged officers to avoid the use of force.
Madrid has sent thousands of extra police officers from other forces to Catalonia – which accounts for one-fifth of Spain’s economy – to stop the referendum from happening.
Catalan Vice-President Oriol Junqueras has said that there are alternatives for citizens to vote, without saying what they are.



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