Catalan Police Endure Spanish Pressure Before Disputed Vote

Updated on
  • Interior Ministry to coordinate Catalan, national police corps
  • Separtists ready for tougher reaction this week from Rajoy

Catalonia Sets Independence Vote Deemed Illegal by Spain

Spain’s struggle to stop Catalonia’s separatist referendum overcame a potential body blow over the weekend as the region’s police force acceded to demands it take more direction from the central government in Madrid.

At first, Catalan interior chief Joaquim Forn said on Saturday his rebel administration rejected a national prosecutor’s order for central-government coordination of police in the run-up to the Oct. 1 vote. Hours later, Catalan police managers issued an internal memo saying that they’ll keep obeying orders from prosecutors and judges.

While that decision defused a potential showdown between security forces in Spain’s largest regional economy, tension ratcheted back up. Leaders of CUP, an anarchist party represented in Parliament, insisted on a general strike from Oct. 3. On Sunday, civic groups leading the independence movement in the streets demonstrated and handed out posters and voting slips without Catalan police intervening to confiscate them, as ordered.

“We are prepared for a very tough week,” said Jordi Sanchez, the head of that civic group, the Catalan National Assembly. “The state’s reaction will be even tougher than we have seen so far,” he said in an interview. “The state wants incidents to happen so they have an excuse to step up intervention. Our task is to keep people calm.”

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is dealing with the nation’s biggest constitutional challenge in three decades without resorting to a nuclear approach allowed under 155 Article of the 1978 document to suspend the region’s semi-autonomy. His efforts to snuff out the illegal referendum before it can be held are being supported by prosecutors and the constitutional Court.

Shutting Parliament?

The El Confidencial news website on Monday said most central government officials see invoking Article 155 as inevitable, citing unidentified people it said were close to the cabinet. Shutting the Catalan Parliament also is under consideration, after the Catalans possibly “declare independence,” according to the report.

Asked if he would be prepared to make a unilateral declaration of independence if the Spanish central government succeeds in suppressing the Oct. 1 vote, Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s president, denied the option is currently being considered by the regional government, in a pre-recorded interview Sunday evening.

“This is not on the table at the moment,” he said on the La Sexta program. “It’s not my preferred option; we want the referendum to go ahead.”

Even so Puigdemont said his regional administration is determined act on a mandate if a Yes vote to break away from Spain wins -- without providing details on the process or setting a minimum turnout rate.

Catalan Obedience

“I won’t be disobeying the law, I’ll be obeying the Catalan Parliament,” he said.

Last week the central government took control of the Catalan executive’s coffers, a judge in Barcelona ordered the arrest of a more than a dozen regional officials allegedly helping to organize the referendum, and the vote’s electoral board members stepped down en bloc after the Constitutional Court imposed a daily fine of 12,000 euros ($14,300) on each member.

“Rajoy is basically applying the 155 without actually having to announce it,” said Jose Antonio Zarzalejos, a columnist at La Vanguardia, Catalonia’s largest newspaper.

Hundreds gathered outside Placa Universitat on Sunday morning to distribute voting material, defying the central government. Police have seized approximately 10 million voting slips across Catalonia on the basis that the vote is illegal and any material that promotes an illegal act must be seized.

Read more: Catalan History of Grievance Leaves a Divided Spain: QuickTake

Chanting for freedom, protesters also handed posters, shirts and independence flags. A group of students has been stationed at the University of Barcelona since Friday, refusing to leave the institution as a sign of protest to the crackdown.

A high point of tension this weekend was when the Mossos d’Esquadra, as Catalonia’s police corps is known, was ordered to accept coordination from a non-Catalan official -- a colonel of Spain’s Civil Guard police force -- in all operations related to the blocking the Oct. 1 vote. The officer, Diego Perez de los Cobos, is chief of staff of the security department of the Interior Ministry of Spain’s central government.

While the Mossos chief, Josep Lluis Trapero, reports to the regional government, his force’s funding is mostly provided by Madrid and it’s required to take orders from judges and prosecutors from across the country.

“The Mossos are first in line to deal with an eventual increasing pressure on the streets or with a general strike if the CUP and some trade unions manage to widen the support for it,”
Zarzalejos said.

For Maria Antonia Bonet, a pro-independence supporter, confiscation won’t stop the vote. She’s finding her voter information online from various websites that judges have deemed illegal and asked to be taken down, although Catalan officials keep keep tweeting new links. The sites contain information such as location of voting booths.

“I’m convinced we will vote, I have all the information I need from websites my children showed be,” the 67-year-old pensioner said during a protest. “The Spanish government has taken every thing away; our money, our regional powers and now our police. That made me angry. But they’re on our side, I handed one Mosso a flower today and he winked at me. We will vote.”

— With assistance by Ben Sills

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