Catalan leaders said Thursday that their plans for a controversial referendum on independence from Spain have been thrown into jeopardy by government raids in which campaign materials were seized.
The proposed October 1 vote on independence for Catalonia, called by the separatist parties who control the region’s devolved government, has triggered one of the country’s worst political crises in decades. Spain’s leaders have said they will not allow the vote, which the courts have ruled is illegal and unconstitutional, to go ahead; Catalan regional leaders insist that it will.
On Wednesday, Spanish authorities raided offices of the Catalan regional government and other premises in the region – arresting 14 top officials, including junior economy minister Josep Maria Jove, and seizing millions of ballot papers and other campaign materials – in a bid to stop the vote.
The swoop sparked massive demonstrations Wednesday, in which an estimated 40,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Barcelona – the Catalan capital – blocking the entrance to Catalonia’s economic ministry, one of the raided premises.
On Thursday, Catalan officials admitted for the first time that the raids had cast doubt on whether the referendum could proceed as planned – although it was not clear how it would be affected.
“It is obvious that we won’t be able to vote as we would have liked,” Oriol Junqueras, vice president of the regional government, told a local television station. “They have altered the rules.”
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the high court in Barcelona Thursday to demand the release of the arrested officials.
Wednesday’s raids have sparked widespread outrage across Catalonia. Regional president Carles Puigdemont said that the Spanish government had “crossed a red line,” Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau called them “a democratic scandal,” and even the city’s famous soccer team, FC Barcelona, issued a statement of condemnation.
In response, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made a televised statement Wednesday night calling on the separatists to “stop this escalation of radicalism and disobedience once and for all.”
“Don’t go ahead; you don’t have any legitimacy to do it,” he said.
Demands for independence have grown louder in recent years in Catalonia, a wealthy region in northeastern Spain which has its own distinct language and culture. The region’s 7.5 million people account for 16 percent of Spain’s population, and about a fifth of its economic output.
Polls suggest that Catalans are narrowly split on the issue of independence, with about 49 percent in favour and 41 percent opposed. But nearly three-quarters of people in the region believe a referendum on the issue should be held.