Catalans prepare to defy Madrid in banned independence vote

Tens of thousands of Catalans are expected to defy Spanish authorities and attempt to vote in a banned independence referendum on Sunday, raising fears of unrest in the wealthy northeastern region.

Result will have no legal status because it's been blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court

People hold Esteladas (Catalan separatist flags) as they wait for a closing rally in favour of the banned October 1 independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain September 29, 2017. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Tens of thousands of Catalans are expected to defy Spanish authorities and attempt to vote in a banned independence referendum on Sunday, raising fears of unrest in the wealthy northeastern region.

The referendum, declared illegal by Spain's central government, has thrown the country into its worst constitutional crisis in decades and raised fears of street violence as a test of will between Madrid and Barcelona plays out.

In a sign of how the planned vote has polarized the country, thousands of pro-unity demonstrators gathered in Spain's major cities, including Barcelona, to express their fierce opposition to Catalonia's attempt to break away.

In the region itself, hundreds of supporters of the referendum spent the day with their children playing soccer, board games and ping pong in schools, traditionally used as voting stations in Spain, to keep them open until voting starts at 9 a.m. local time on Sunday.

The government said just a small percentage of schools were occupied, however, and that it had verified that most of the more than 2,300 earmarked for the vote were closed.

In those where they gathered, parents brought sleeping bags and prepared to bed down on gym mats.

"We don't understand why we can't express in a peaceful manner the simplest expression of democracy — a vote," said  Pablo Larranaga, as he stood in a school in Barcelona surrounded by parents and small children.

"We don't know what is going to happen tomorrow. We are going to try to vote in the only way we know, which is peacefully."

Students gather as they demonstrate against the position of the Spanish government to ban the self-determination referendum of Catalonia during a strike by university students on Thursday in Barcelona. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

It is still unclear whether the referendum will go ahead despite the regional government's assertions that it will proceed and Madrid's insistence that it will block the move.

The ballot will have no legal status as it has been blocked by Spain's Constitutional Court and Madrid for being at odds with the 1978 constitution.

A minority of around 40 per cent of Catalans support independence, polls show, although a majority want to hold a referendum on the issue. The region of 7.5 million people has an economy larger than that of Portugal.

Spanish flags

However much voting takes place, a Yes result is likely, given that most of those who support independence are expected to cast ballots while most of those against it are not.

Police monitored schools earmarked as polling stations and occupied the Catalan government's communications hub on Saturday in an effort to prevent the referendum from going ahead.
The Catalan police, or Mossos d'Esquadra, who are monitoring the schools, are held in great affection by the Catalan people, especially after Islamist attacks in the region in August that killed 16.

But thousands of extra police have been sent to the region in order to enforce a court order banning the referendum, many of whom are billeted in two ships in the port.

A protester holds up a sign in front of Catalan police outside the Catalan region's foreign affairs ministry building, during a raid by Spanish police on government offices, in Barcelona, Spain, on Sept. 20. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

A Spanish government source said it would be up to police how they carried out orders to remove people from polling stations on Sunday. The head of the Catalan police on Friday urged officers to avoid the use of force.

Organizers urged voters to arrive at 5 a.m. at polling stations and to wait in line until the schools opened. Voters must show peaceful resistance to police action, organizers said.
"We must be sure there are lots of people present of all ages," they said in instructions disseminated on social media.

Any volunteer staffing a voting station with use of a census listing eligible voters would be liable for a fine of up to 300,000 euros, the government source said.

Anti-independence demonstrators march with Spanish flags in Barcelona on Saturday. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

Thousands of pro-unity demonstrators waving Spanish flags filled the central square outside the seat of the regional 
government and Barcelona city hall.

One man burnt the Catalan flag while a group tried to tear down a banner reading "More democracy' hanging from the front of the town hall to cheers from the crowd.

In the capital, Madrid, hundreds gathered, waving the national flag and chanting "Spanish unity" and "Don't fool us — Catalonia is Spain." Many balconies in the capital are draped with the red and yellow Spanish flag.