MADRID/BARCELONA - The Catalan regional leader on Thursday said he would press on with an Oct. 1 referendum on a split from Spain, flouting a court ban, as tens of thousands gathered for a second day on the streets of Barcelona demanding the right to vote.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said he had contingency plans in place to ensure the vote would go ahead, directly defying Madrid and pushing the country closer to political crisis.
Spain's Constitutional Court banned the vote earlier this month after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said it violated Spain's 1978 constitution, which states the country is indivisible. Most opposition parties are also against the vote.
“All the power of the Spanish state is set up to prevent Catalans voting,” Puigdemont said in a televised address.
“We will do it because we have contingency plans in place to ensure it happens, but above all because it has the support of the immense majority of the population, who are sick of the arrogance and abuse of the People’s Party government.”
'Step back for democracy'
On Thursday, tens of thousands gathered outside the seat of Catalonia’s top court in Barcelona, singing and banging drums, to protest the arrests of senior officials in police raids on regional government offices on Wednesday.
“This is a step back for democracy,” said one of them, 62-year-old pensioner Enric Farro. “This is the kind of thing that happened years ago — it shouldn't be happening now.”
State police arrested Catalonia’s junior economy minister, Josep Maria Jove, on Wednesday in an unprecedented raid of regional government offices.
Acting on court orders, police have also raided printers, newspaper offices and private delivery companies in a search for campaign literature, instruction manuals for manning voting stations and ballot boxes.
Polls show about 40 percent of Catalans support independence for the wealthy northeastern region and a majority want a referendum on the issue. Puigdemont has said there is no minimum turnout for the vote and he will declare independence within 48 hours of a “yes” result.
A central government’s spokesman said protests in Catalonia were organized by a small group and did not represent the general feeling of the people.
“In those demonstrations, you see the people who go, but you don’t see the people who don't go, who are way more and are at home because they don’t like what’s happening,” Inigo Mendez de Vigo said.
Mendez de Vigo also said an offer for dialogue from Madrid remained on the table. Repeated attempts to open negotiations between the two camps over issues such as taxes and infrastructure investment have failed over the past five years.
Rajoy said on Wednesday the government’s actions in Catalonia were the result of legal rulings and were to ensure the rule of law. The prime minister called on Catalan leaders to cancel the vote.
Hundreds of National Police and Guardia Civil reinforcements have been brought into Barcelona and are being billeted in two ferries rented by the Spanish government and moored in the harbor. But the central government must tread a fine line in enforcing the law in the region without seeming heavy-handed.
Hardline tactics a concern
The stand-off between Catalonia and the central government resonates beyond Spain. The country’s EU partners publicly support Rajoy but worry that his hardline tactics might backfire.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, who heads the pro-independence devolved government, said she hoped the Catalan and Spanish governments could hold talks to resolve the situation.
In a referendum in 2014, Scots voted to remain within the United Kingdom.