Spanish police in riot gear seized ballot boxes and surrounded activist-held polling stations in Catalonia on Sunday as thousands flooded the streets to vote in an independence referendum banned by Madrid.
As the vote officially opened, scenes of chaos erupted as police began moving in to prevent people from casting their ballots, forcing their way into one sports centre in the town of Girona where the region’s separatist leader was due to vote.
Video footage from journalists on the ground appeared to show police firing rubber bullets at the crowd outside the Ramon Llull polling station in Barcelona, with one person said to have been injured.
Several people have suffered minor injuries, including cuts and bruises, as National Police and Guardia Civil security forces push their way through crowds of referendum supporters to access the interior of polling stations.
Spain’s interior ministry has asked people not to obstruct members of the security forces as they seize electoral material from polling stations across Catalonia, appealing for “cooperation and respect so that a direct court order can be enacted peacefully”.
The National Police and the Guardia Civil have to take action. The objective is not people. I repeat, the aim of this action is not the people who have freely turned up to express their opinion. The objective is electoral material,” said Enric Millo, the central government’s chief representative in Catalonia.
“We find ourselves forced to do what we didn’t want to do,” he added, criticising the Catalan regional Mossos d’Esquadra force for its passivity in failing to evacuate or close electoral colleges occupied overnight.
Many polling stations reported that their IT systems have failed, meaning that they cannot access the electronic census the Catalan government said would allow all citizens to cast their vote in any district.
Police were also reported to be charging at groups of protestors who refused to allow them access to polling stations.
Police use force to remove people from voting stations in Catalonia
“Votarem, votarem!” – Catalan for “We will vote!” – chanted the crowds, many with their hands in the air.
As the rain poured down in Barcelona, students and activists who had spent the night in schools designated as polling stations gathered outside with locals to “defend” the vote from police as cars drove by honking their horns in support.
Catalan television broadcast footage of crowds in towns and villages all over region, whose separatist government said early Sunday the referendum would go ahead as planned.
Although the region is divided over independence, most people want to vote on the matter in legal, binding plebiscite.
“The government today is in a position to affirm that we can celebrate the referendum of self-determination – not as we wanted, but (it will have democratic) guarantees,” Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull told a news conference.
Ballot boxes hidden
The interior ministry said it had started seizing ballot boxes, adding police were “continuing to deploy in Catalonia” to stop the referendum.
Spain’s central government is staunchly against the vote, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the courts, and has vowed to stop it from taking place.
On orders of judges and prosecutors, police have seized ballot papers, detained key organisers and shut down websites promoting the vote.
But on the streets early Sunday, voters were determined to be heard.
“Today is a historic day for us, it’s terrific,” Maria Rosa Pi-Sunyer Arguimbau, 55, said after a man carrying a ballot box jumped out of a car and ran to the door, depositing it inside as two police officers looked on across the street.
The ballot boxes have been at the centre of attention during the referendum crisis, with many wondering exactly where they were hidden and how they would be delivered to polling stations, as police were ordered to seize any material related to the referendum.
But as people crowded in front of polling stations, they started to arrive, carried in by individuals. It was as yet unclear where they came from.
Puigdemont casts his vote
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont voted on Sunday, despite the police crackdown on polling stations.
The regional government tweeted photos of Puigdemont casting his ballot in Cornella del Terri in the province of Girona, a different place from where he was initially supposed to vote.
Spain’s interior ministry said Saturday police had closed most of the 2,315 polling stations across Catalonia.
But dozens were occupied by teachers, parents, students and activists determined to let people in anyway.
Some schools designated as polling stations imagined innovative ways to stay open, organising leisure activities all over the weekend, from kids’ pyjama parties to volleyball games. A regional government source said voting may also take place in other places like health centres and even retirement homes.
Farmers and firefighters have also pledged to protect polling stations.