BARCELONA — The earliest results of a controversial and chaotic referendum in the Catalonia region of northeast Spain on Sunday showed broad support for independence for the restive but affluent area, a lopsided vote sure to be vigorously opposed by the constitutional court and central government in Madrid as illegitimate and illegal.
According to the Catalan government, 90 percent of the ballots cast were for independence — with 2,020,144 voting yes and 176,566 no.
Minutes after the first few thousand votes were posted, the regional president and leading secessionist, Carles Puigdemont, appeared on stage to announce that Catalonia had won “the right to independence” and called on Europe to support its split from Spain.
But nothing about the vote was regular — nor orderly, transparent or peaceful. Images of police beating voters in stylish, cosmopolitan Barcelona fueled a widespread perception that Europe, in particular, and the West, in general – far from cheering on the breakup of Spain – face yet more tensions and dislocation.
And it is far from clear that Catalonia is any closer to independence. The vote left the region and nation deeply divided.
In a television address late Sunday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said there was no real independence vote in Catalonia. He said a majority of the residents of the region had not even showed up at the polls.
Over the weekend, boisterous activist-voters had brought their children into schools to defend the polling stations deemed illegal by the central government in Madrid.
Soon after the polls opened, Spanish riot police smashed into the voting centers, their raids caught on mobile phone cameras that showed them whipping ordinary citizens with rubber truncheons and dragging them away by their hair.
The plebiscite produced anxiety and shock across Europe — where many condemned the violence by the police but also worried that Catalan secessionists were violating the constitution.
The secessionists said Spain’s heavy-handed attempt to snuff out the referendum stirred memories of the county’s dark decades of dictatorship.
Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau called the day’s violence between police and citizens “a rupture” in society.
Jordi Turull, the spokesman for the Catalonia regional government, described the actions of the Spanish state as “the shame of Europe.”
But many in Spain saw a manipulative propaganda play by secessionists to stage a one-sided referendum designed to produce a “yes” vote no matter what.
“This was a sad day,” said Ines Arrimadas, a member of a center-right party in Catalonia who opposed the vote. “It was crazy to hold this referendum.”
She told Catalonia’s public broadcaster, which is staunchly pro-secession, that “on this TV broadcast you will believe the result, but no one on the outside will.”
Spain’s interior minister, Alfonso Dastis, called the day’s violence “unpleasant” but “proportional.”
Yet the portrayal of the day’s events could not have been worse for the central government. Although Madrid might have had the Spanish constitution on its side, the images being blasted around the world showed peaceful citizens being dragged away from the ballot boxes by helmeted police dressed all in black.
The vote in Catalonia was a mass act of civil disobedience, organized by the regional government but propelled by WhatsApp groups, encrypted messages and clandestine committees.
There were stirring moments of people power — and the activists who organized the vote were often two steps ahead of Madrid.
As the police forced their way through shouting crowds into the schoolhouses that served as polling stations, the organizers spirited away the ballots and hid them in the classrooms amid coloring books and crayons.
An hour after police drove away from one school in their big black vans, under a hail of insults, the ballot boxes reemerged and the voting recommenced.
The pattern was repeated again and again across hundreds of polling stations Sunday.
By late afternoon, the Catalan health ministry said 844 people had suffered minor injuries in brawls with police, who could be be seen punching some demonstrators. The officers also fired scores of rubber bullets at crowds in Barcelona and other cities. Officials in Madrid said a dozen police officers had been injured.
The past two weeks have seen mass demonstrations and a high-risk game of cat-and-mouse, as the secessionists sought to carry out a vote that Madrid vowed it would stop.
As the central government shut down websites promoting the referendum, new apps popped up to guide voters.
The Catalan government, dominated by breakaway leaders, said that despite police raids, more than 70 percent of the polling stations were open Sunday afternoon.
Spain’s interior ministry, which initially boasted it had closed most of the voting centers, later said police had managed to close only 92 of more than 2,300 polling stations.
In the former textile town of Sabadell, the fifth-largest city in Catalonia, hundreds of volunteers spent the night in the schools used as polling stations, strumming guitars and singing folk songs from the old days. As they awoke in sleeping bags sprawled in the hallways, their neighbors were sneaking the ballot boxes into auditoriums.
Francesc Codina had spent the past three weeks hiding the boxes in a dusky wine cellar in the heart of the city. Later, the plastic tubs, with the seal of the Catalan government, were ferried around town, stashed in black plastic.
“They were disguised as bags of trash,” Codina said. “But this was democracy we carried in our hands.”
Codina said informers and intelligence officers were searching everywhere for the ballots and boxes.
He shrugged. “But there’s lots of hiding places.”
At a high school for industrial training, Teresa Macia was volunteering as an observer for the vote. Asked whether she was afraid of violence or arrest, she answered, “No. And even if they scared me a little bit, it would be worth it.”
Meanwhile, the Spanish soccer league game between Barcelona and Las Palmas at the Camp Nou stadium went ahead without any fans in attendance.
Just before the polls opened, the Catalan regional government declared that any registered voter could vote anywhere — instead of having to visit their assigned polling station in their home towns. The voting lists, the regional government said, would be digital and not printed as usual for the polling officers to check against identification cards.
But there were problems right away with registering the voters — and the online system was balky. And this, among all the other irregularities, raised questions about the legitimacy of the vote.
Those who opposed the vote — especially the people who want to remain in Spain — scoffed that the Catalans were being allowed to vote as many times as they like.
Anna Fernandez, handy at computers, was asked to come quickly to the Escola Nostra Llar, Our Home School, just before the voting began to help get the glitchy digital lists to work.
“Then the police came through the windows,” said the mother of three, all of whom attend the school. “They came with big hammers. The old people locked their arms together and tried to stop them. They were shouting at us, ‘Where are the ballots? Where are the boxes?’ But by then, I don’t know what happened, but all the material, the papers, the computers, they had all disappeared.”
She smiled and said, “And then the ballots were found and the people are starting to vote again.”
As the National Police left without the ballots, the crowd hurled insults at them, calling them cowards, traitors and worse. An hour later, a new and longer line of voters stretched down the block, laughing and sharing videos, under their umbrellas in the rain.
Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, said in a news conference that the “absolute irresponsibility of the Catalan government has had to be dealt with by the professionalism of the state’s security forces. With firmness and proportionality, we have thrown into disarray the Catalan government’s plans. There hasn’t been a referendum nor the semblance of one. Nothing good will come of this.”
Raul Gallego Abellan contributed to this report.