Catalan regional leader Carles Puigdemont has demanded that all Spanish national police withdraw from the region, after more than 800 people were injured in violent clashes at polling stations in Catalonia over the weekend. Violence broke out Sunday when millions of people went to the polls to vote in an independence referendum that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insists didn’t happen.
Whether it “happened” or not, one thing was clear: Sunday’s vote was marred by violence. Riot police were seen firing rubber bullets at pro-independence protesters attempting to cast their ballots, and video footage showed police kicking people who would not leave polling stations. In one instance, which was shared widely on social media, a policeman can be seen forcefully dragging a woman by her hair.
Medical officials said 844 people were injured in total, including 33 police officers.
National police were sent to Catalonia ahead of the vote, which Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled illegal, with the aim of shut down polling stations. But Madrid’s attempts to quell a political uprising backfired instantly, as images of violent police confronting peaceful protestors travelled around the web, sparking outrage in Spain and abroad.
Both sides are meeting to assess their next moves following the outbreak of violence over the weekend. The Catalan regional government is holding an emergency meeting to discuss the next steps toward declaring independence while the Spanish government will meet to discuss a response to the biggest political crisis the country has seen in decades.
Prime Minister Rajoy said the referendum made a “mockery” of democracy, and threatened to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy. Justice Minister Rafael Catala said the government would do “everything within the law” to prevent Catalonia from declaring independence.
But Catalan leaders continued their defiant tone Monday, urging international mediation to help navigate tensions between Barcelona and Madrid, and pressing on with their calls for independence.
“It’s obvious that we need mediation,” Puigdemont said in a televised news conference Monday.
The EU, however, didn’t appear ready to intervene, with a spokesperson calling the referendum an “internal matter for Spain.” The European Commission urged both sides to move “swiftly from confrontation to dialogue” but reiterated that the vote was illegal and that if a referendum did take place, Catalonia would find itself outside the EU.
Thousands of people marched through Barcelona Monday to protest the violent police crackdown, and 40 unions and Catalan associations have called for a general strike in the region Tuesday.
The Catalan government said that just under 90 percent of the 2.2 million people who voted — a turnout of 42.3 percent — opted for independence.
Catalonia, an autonomous region within Spain, and one of the country’s key hubs of wealth and industry, has long sought independence. The region’s independent spirit was quashed under Gen Francisco Franco’s 30-plus year dictatorship, but was revived as a political issue soon after his death. The Catalan independence effort picked up steam in the 2000s. The region’s nonbinding self-determination referendum in 2014 laid the groundwork for Sunday’s vote.